I’ve been thinking a lot lately about listening. I’ve realized that in so many of the communication trainings that I have been involved in focus more on how to express yourself than on how to listen. Even when we trainers give lip service to the importance of listening over speaking,  our practice exercises and examples may be dominated by what to say.

Physician  and Harvard Business Review blogger Mark Goulston compares listening to someone vent to draining an abscess. Just like you need to let all the pus out of an abscsss before antibiotics can fully be effective, a person with pent-up emotion needs to let it all out before the healing can start.

So how do you listen appropriately in that circumstance? Giving advice or telling someone what to do generally backfires; just saying nothing isn’t generally satisfying to them either. Instead, ask questions like:

  • What are you most frustrated about?
  • What are you most angry about?
  • What are you really worried about?

The other all-purpose question is: “Say more about that.” Try reflecting back the emotion, rather than the content, of you hear.  This shows that you are listening but gives the speaker space to continue.