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Learning to listen more carefully

Recently I have had the pleasure of spending time at 2 meetings with, let us call him, John from Uganda.

After a little while, I noticed that John had the habit of quietly raising his hand (yes, it is possible to raise your hand quietly) and asking a question.

And often the question was about someone else's question. Had we understood this question correctly? And, if so, had the answer that had been given to this question been satisfactory? And very often, the answer to both of John's questions was 'no'.

And so we would probe a little further into the question and often a lot further into the answer. And often this was a wonderful opportunity to learn.

And I understood how rarely that I listened hard to the questions that people asked of other people. And how even more rarely I listened to the answer. And almost never did I deliberately consider if the answer REALLY addressed the question that had been asked.

And what I have learned over the last few weeks is that when somone asks a question they have a concern or are puzzled, and that is often an excellent opportunity to listen and to learn.

Now when someone asks a question in a meeting, I listen hard and then ask myself:
• Have I understood the question?
• Have I understood the answer?
• Does the answer respond to the question?

And when my answer to the last question is no, I raise my hand quietly.

So thank you John from Uganda.

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Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on January 14, 2018 at 8:27pm

I came across this blog and found it useful

What makes people listen?

Imagine your local baker comes up with a deep and profound observation; something really important – something that could change your life or even the entire planet and you miss it and are left with a wholemeal loaf?

If you then meet a famous author outside the shop who uses the exact same words you might listen, you might be impacted, you might tell others.

If a child suggests a really clever idea would you hear it? Hear it and ignore it? Or tell them to be quiet?

What if a celebrity, pop star or politician said the very same thing on the television that afternoon – would the idea suddenly have more impact; would it instantly carry more weight? Do the same words spoken by someone else magically make more sense?

Are some things simply heavy listening? Or do some words carry more weight depending on who speaks them?

Many great ideas are simple. I think the crucial difference is attention. When you heighten your senses you open up your world to the bigger World around you.

What stops us from hearing? I don’t think it is ignorance; I think to an extent we have become overwhelmed by information and choices; who and what to listen to. I think if you trust your instinct something inside you knows when to pay attention. When we truly do listen and more importantly contemplate what is being said and make connections, great ideas come from the most unlikely of sources.

In a way, we are all teachers and learners on a daily basis and everyone has something to offer you and you to them.

Really listening could make a world of difference to you, the planet, everything 


Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on July 26, 2013 at 9:10pm

Hi Phil,

I came across this document which was developed as part of a collaborative learning project called 'The Listening Project'

Warm regards,


Comment by Jan Somers on September 13, 2012 at 10:42pm

As I was reading this, I thought of the "two ears only one mouth" but I notice that Rituu already referred to that as well.

Listening is an active process - not just a passive process of attention and focus. Rephrasing, summarising, validation if I understood it as intented, ... are all part of this active process.

A lot has to do - I think - with the role you take up during a meeting, conversation, ... So maybe the basis for good listening is in the mental preparation rather than the application of a set of techniques. Like world tennis players - if they focus on the ball and the goal of winning this point (not the game or tournement because that is merely a consequence of winning each ball) the best of what they have been practicing comes out. A great player is the one who manages to re-focus each ball irrespective of the result of the last ball.

Comment by Dr Rajesh Gopal on August 13, 2009 at 6:57pm
Yes both the ears very attentively very often and the mouth only to facilitate the process and only sparingly
Comment by Geoff Parcell on August 13, 2009 at 10:57am
( )
Comment by Dr Rajesh Gopal on August 13, 2009 at 5:03am
It is not a mere coincidence that the words LISTEN and SILENT have the same letters.

It is a skill to listen properly and not all of us possess that.

A perfect communication can occur without even an utterance of a single word by an effective communication through proper listening.

Best wishes,

Rajesh Gopal.
Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on August 9, 2009 at 5:13am
Dear Phil,

Thanks for this excellent learning. We often believe that the capability to speak equals good communication. However, in order to communicate successfully, the skill to listen is just as important.

You have beautifully illustrated while listening is a valuable asset in the art of conversation but listening carefully is even more important. Similarly, during a SALT visit, a successful facilitator is not the one who speaks endlessly but one who is able to motivate the community members to speak and share their experiences. One of the most important considerations a facilitator shows to the community members is to listen to them carefully. Moreover, listening is a skill which helps the facilitator in learning more about the community.

I am reminded of my second SALT visit outside a village temple in Karnataka facilitated by the Samraksha staff with Geoff as the coach. I was translating for him and I found Geoff very quiet, attentive and completely engrossed in the proceedings. His questions later during the AAR were indicative of how attentive listener he had been.

Here is this interesting quote from Greek author Diogenes, "We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less".

Best regards,

Comment by Laurence Gilliot on August 7, 2009 at 5:51pm
Hi Phil,

Excellent blog, excellent learning point :-) Actually I learned the same in Kigali but... from Jean-Louis.

We were in a SALT visit at the trucker's stop in Kigali, with a small group of sex workers and truckers. Within the first 2 min Miriam, one of the sex workers selling her services in the bars behind the center asked: "I keep on telling my clients that I'm HIV positive. But they still want to have sex with me without a condom. What can I do?" Everyone in the group was a bit surprised by her question.
Slowly the discussion moved on to different points, ex: how the safety stop functions, etc.... and suddenly Jean-Louis quietly stopped the flow of the discussion.

He said: "I think that Miriam has asked a very important question. She came here and ask the question because she is really concerned about the truckers. This is really an opportunity to reflect together about what we can do."

I suddenly realized that we had to listen better to people's questions and concerns and use it as an open door... We dropped what WE (facilitators) had in mind for the SALT visit and totally focused on Miriam's concern.

I learned a lot on this visit.

Phil, thanks for phrasing so well what I couldn't put in words. It is cristal clear for me now :-)


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