Hearing or Listening: Which One Are You Doing?

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There is a big difference between someone hearing  you and someone listening  to you. Just because someone is physically able to hear you, doesn’t mean that they’re consciously listening and processing what you’re saying.

As a consultant, active listening is an essential skill. Being able to hear the issues that the client describes is different from listening to understand the impact it’s having on the organization and what could be causing it. Listening provides you with the clues that can enable you to solve the problem.

Active listening, the technique that requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker can be a differentiator for consultants. People feel most connected to those who verbally and non-verbally make an effort to hear and understand the message.

Below we’ve compiled a list of ways for you to go beyond hearing, and truly listen.

Affirmative Responses

This tip is especially helpful when having phone conversations. Acknowledging points with an occasional “yes,” “uh huh,” “right,” lets the speaker know that you’re still listening and engaged with what you’re saying. They’re talking to a person for a reason, otherwise, they would talk to a wall. Don’t be a wall. Validating what they say or how they feel isn’t agreeing. If someone is mad, a better response than “calm down,” would be “I can see this is frustrating you, would you like a minute and revisit?” It addresses their emotional state and allows for them to reflect on how they feel and make a potentially better decision.

Act like you’re paying attention

And then actually pay attention. This can be frustrating for a speaker when they’re talking and you’re checking your phone, twirling your pen, or constantly fidgeting. Make eye contact, lean forward, and nod or shake your head as appropriate. If these habits don’t come naturally, try practicing with friends and close colleagues and ask them for honest feedback about the message you’re sending when they’re speaking.

Ask if you can give advice

People sometimes just want to talk. Sometimes people would like advice. Knowing the purpose of the conversation beforehand lets you know what your boundaries are. A way to address it would be “would you like for me to share an experience with you about how I handled something similar?” or “are you venting and would like for me to just listen or would you like my feedback as well?” Otherwise, wait for someone to ask you for advice before you give it.

Listen to understand not respond

It can be frustrating to be in a conversation with someone who you know is just waiting for their turn to talk. Don’t be that person. You never know what will come out of someone’s mouth so instead of assuming you know what it is, actually listen. There is an improv exercise that forces you to pay closer attention to what someone else is saying so you’re more present in the moment and not in your head. Person A says a sentence, Person B must repeat that sentence and follow it up with something that will progress the conversation.


  • Person A: My only daughter left for college today.
  • Person B: Your only daughter left for college today. Are you going to have a party to celebrate?
  • Person A: Am I going to have a party to celebrate? Yes and finally turn her room into a gym.

Though there are much more interesting points of conversations, you get the idea.

Being a good active listener takes practice. Notice how your conversations change when implementing these tips into everyday conversations. 

What other tools do you use to be an active listener?

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