How focused listening works — a higher form of communication

Some years back, I sat with another person whom I trusted as much as I have trusted any individual in my life. In that rough chapter of my story, there were more broken pieces, more deadly shrapnel and more barbs of pain than memory would let me hold.


In this friend’s presence, over an hour one day, another couple hours another, and dozens of other meetings that followed, I knew I was loved, valued and accepted. He knew me well, had known similar professional struggles, and created a safe place for me to be the person I was – warts and all – and still am.

We connected because I knew deep down he was focused on helping me navigate life’s turbulence. Because he listened to me, I knew I could trust him. The wounds found healing in his care.

There is no more powerful tool in life than listening. More sales are lost and more relationships crushed in the wreckage of failed communication than any of us care to admit. Effective listening may be the master key to all success. And yet, as George Bernard Shaw noted long ago, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” How ironic that in an age when we can instantly message anyone, communication continues to suffer.

City University of New York Humanities professors Shauna Vey and Victoria Lichterman posted startling statistics on listening and learning in a handout titled “Listen to This!” that reveal much. “Spoken words,” they wrote, “account for only about 30-35 percent of transmitted meaning. The rest is transmitted through nonverbal communication that can only be detected through visual and auditory listening.”

What are we missing? And what is it costing us in connection and commerce because we so inadequately “get” others?


In music, when a tune becomes familiar, the composer will add other instruments and dabble in higher keys. These varying sound combinations jar the mind into believing something new is on the way. That’s precisely how focused listening moves words to another level.

Imagine language heard as the melody – punctuated and nuanced – tumbling out of another’s mouth. But accompanying that tune are other instruments giving it texture and color. Those other voices are the person’s history, recent and distant successes and disappointments, personal and professional gifts, and the many relationships in that life that define its sense of self and purpose.


To practice focused listening is to transition from a listener of words to a connoisseur of communication taking in all that other person is.

Focused listening requires energy. Sounds heard in a conversation crash headlong into those internal voices of a spouse, a child, a supervisor, a “to do” list, or any number of other interrupters. And all of them want our attention. Focused listeners learn how to hush these competing voices and focus exclusively on the person with them.

It also takes energy to keep at bay whatever internal conflicts bubble up in a conversation. Left unchecked, our mind, hearing a sentence that raises a question or concern, will trot down an incorrect interpretive road and miss the sights, sounds and sentences that follow. These two barriers and many others cripple understanding.


What if we had trusted partners we could marshal, making conversations more elegant? Here are four: the twins of empathy and sympathy; curiosity; creativity; and intuition. Empathy and sympathy awaken compassion for the other person. They walk in the other’s shoes and see life through another’s eyes. Curiosity, unlike voyeurism, quickens the “Why?” questions. Likewise, creativity gives permission to ask “What if?” Intuition summons imagination to support the other person’s courage in facing the “whatevers” ahead.

All four, placed in the service of a listener, empower greater understanding and more generous and genuine care. Together, they create a listening ensemble lifting a conversation to a higher, more exquisite level of communication.

Before written words, language was humanity’s only vehicle for expression. Focused listening was the only game in town. How strange that in this era of massive, global communication we have so few genuinely meaningful conversational connections. Your life and business, relationships and memories will be transformed to the degree you elevate listening to this higher, more focused level of communication.


(The writer is author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience, and can be followed on his blog at He lives in Augusta.)

Dee STAFFORD 8 months ago
Effective listening maybe the hardest communications skill there is. You can't be lazy and be an effective listener. One of the things you have to do to be an effective listen is to care about what the person has to say.

Another thing it requires is patience and that is something in very, very short supply in today's world.

Finally, one has to WANT to be an effective listener.
Roland SASSER 8 months ago
Right now in Washington and possibly the entire country, there appears to be no want to listen or patience!
Jim Hall 8 months ago
A PBS special on the Amish revealed the true nature of their issue with electricity and phones.

It was not so much a disdain for progress as it was of interfering with "personal communication".  Face to face talking and listening was important to their culture.  To their faith.  Traveling to see a neighbor and sharing thoughts and concerns.   Time well spent.

The phone lines and the poles that carried the lines required all citizens to hook up to the utility.  A refusal could prevent your non Amish neighbors from receiving the service.  Hence, ill feeling and misunderstanding.

Prior to WWII, the Amish and their neighbors were all simple farmers with much the same daily routine and lifestyle.  Family, work and church.

We have progressed from going to see grandma, hugging grandma, to calling grandma, to texting grandma.   No face.  No voice.  Layers of personal separation.
Leslie Inman 8 months ago

This gives me much to think about.  I check my phone in the morning and several times during the day, looking to see if anyone has texted me or commented on my FB page.  Most of the time I'm disappointed. We've grown so lazy in our relationships, and are so disconnected now days.  There is nothing like face to face relationships, speaking directly into another's life and them speaking into yours.  The next best thing is to hear another's voice over the telephone.  You have to focus your eyes, ears, mind and heart on the other person, and let nothing else interrupt your conversation.  ( Leslie Inman ) 

FRANKIE MAY 6 months ago
Very insightful, Tim.  I appreciated your views and wording.  Listening, with body and mind, is so important.


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