Secrets of Effective Listening


“Not communicating saves energy; it keeps people from worrying about things they cannot do anything about; and it eliminates an enormous amount of useless talk.” – Edwin Newman (Strictly Speaking, 1974)

Communication experts are big on the importance of active, empathetic listening. And maybe they should be. But as someone who can’t seem to pay attention to anything about business more than 10 seconds in a row, I’ve had to develop certain unorthodox methods of coping.

I offer them to you for your own amusement and benefit.

1. Practice “gross meditation.” Focus on some repugnant blemish on the speaker’s face. Imagine how it would feel to have such a hideous thing on your own angelic visage. Use that pity to force yourself to listen to the poor bastard.

2. Skim listen. If the speaker tends to talk with a repetitive cadence, train yourself to listen to every third or fourth sentence. Like skimming a textbook, this will enable you to pick up just enough information to make a considered reply while giving you plenty of time to think about what restaurant you want to dine at on Saturday night.

3. Be a soothsayer. Listen carefully to the first few sentences and then, based on the fragments of information you gleaned, try to predict each subsequent sentence before it’s verbalized. Give yourself one point for guessing the general idea and five points for nailing specific verbiage.

4. Try “wet listening.” Nodding idiotically, ignore the entire speech while you imagine yourself sequestered in a cave with Brad Pitt or Pamela Anderson. When the speaker stops talking, say, “Brilliant! Just brilliant! Can you summarize what you just said in a single-page memo and have it on my desk by tomorrow morning?”

5. Go to the “Hail Mary” save. You’ve been so far away from the conversation that you’ve failed to either nod or make eye contact. The speaker knows you haven’t heard a word. Say, “John, I must apologize. You have just taken the time to give me some very valuable ideas. Yet, because of a minor personal family tragedy, I have selfishly allowed my mind to wander. Could you please restate your thoughts in a one-page memo and have it on my desk by Monday morning?” Then get up abruptly and storm out of the office.