When I first heard the term Active Listening (AL), it sounded so modern. For me, an extrovert, I was intrigued by the fact that listening was more than just a sponge-game of sitting and absorbing. Rather, it was an activity that required me to be a role-player, as well. Thinking of all the different ways that this new skill would benefit me, I was thankful for the corporate learning course.

Now, years later, I realize that active listening is not only a rather dated technique, but a stale one at that. In fact, the practice, coined in a 1957 in the book Active Listening, was certainly revolutionary at the time. However, 70 years later the teachings are just as relevant as the invention of Mr. Potato Head (a different 1950s relict).

Active Listening for Success? Maybe Not.

Contrary to today’s corporate teachings, active listening was not invented to be the go-to, catch-all way people listen. It was developed by clinical psychologists, adapting counseling techniques into workplace training and conflict resolution. In fact the book argues, “employers who engage in active listening can help employees to become more cooperative, less argumentative, and clearer in their own communication.” Indeed, sounds like some good Mr. Potato Head education.

To active listening’s benefit, there are merits to its teachings. It is sound logic that a speaker must feel as if their words are welcome, and that questions create more elaborate conversations. While this is great theory, it’s only a partial and a small beginning. It falls short of more deep and important parts of communication, like empathy-connection and meaningful self-evaluation.

Additionally, the step-by-step guide in teaching AL, which has consumed nearly all of corporate learning, has led to a mechanical implementation of communication. The L&D circuit is filled with the same uninspiring checklist. Hallmarks include: “make sure to nod your head and say, “mhmm” as you listen.” Read that again, and let that sink in. Companies pay educators millions a year to tell their leaders, “make sure to nod your head and say mhmm when listening.”

You’ll find AL techniques hammer-in the practice of paraphrasing. While the reasoning is to show comprehension and invitation to expound, it’s rehearsed so linearly that this type of education only leads to mechanical checklisting, not deep insight or real emotion. I fear that most leaders are being taught to be better parrots, not better people.

How to Listen Better

Communication is a two-way, noncompetitive interaction. Everyone involved should be getting something valuable out of the instance. This means that being a good listener is not just about comprehension and reflection, but should be characterized by deepening the understanding of the topic, for all parties.

Good listeners exceed at giving a speaker’s thoughts more energy and amplitude, insight and observation. Think of listening as a Judo match, a martial art defined by mutual benefit. You must take in your partner’s energy (idea), remodel it, and give it back to them in a new way, allowing for realignment and adjustment.

It starts with You

Just like a Judo master, you must have self awareness in order to be a good listener. We are all naturally tuned to different ways of listening. People tend to listen with the following styles: problem solving, personal connection, character or content evaluation, task-based information completion. Understanding how individual listening style, will allow personal reflection on default projected personality.

Understanding oneself is critical in order to be able to adapt to a conversation in order to listen better. Being able to shift into another frame of listening is fundamental, because every conversation has a different scope. If someone is complaining about a difficult workload, is it because they need some emotional support, or do they require actual task-based solutions?

Additionally, make sure to not make assumptions about what is being said. Our brains are trained to make associations and fill in the blanks. Yet, that behavior in a conversation puts the other person on autofill and immediately can foster disconnection. Or worse, it can lead to an inability to absorb new information. To listen thoroughly, listening must be approached without an agenda. It takes mental preparation.

People Crave Feedback, Not Verbal Investigation

Active listening normally suggests that the listener not share personal stories, or try to offer solutions. AL is a technique wherein the speaker is supposed to find the answer to their own problem through tactical questioning by the listener. Here, the clinical counseling roots of active listening are exemplified. This dynamic can dangerously skew the mutual, team-success and benefit of what any good conversation should bring about.

Realistically, people desire to hear feedback and opinion from the listener. In fact, studies show that people rate good listeners as the people who pose good questions, provide meaningful insights and actually give valuable feedback. When a speaker expresses him or herself, the listener is able to see a litany of information that the speaker in unaware of. Emotions, tone of voice, and words, both said and avoided, all tell a caveated story about the topic at hand.

A good Judo Listener will be able to interpret those signs and intelligently feed them back to the listener. Amplify and make note of idiosyncrasies and incongruences; celebrate and rejoice in positive remarks. This will advance the conversation, push the topic deeper, and allow the listener to reflect and re-elaborate, in real time, individual thought process. Research continually shows that insightful, original feedback was directly related to good listening.

Lastly, Be a Good Person

One of the biggest traits that people crave in good listeners is their ability to build self esteem in the speaker. If someone is coming to you for a problem, it’s fantastic to arrive a great solution, but great listeners go a step further. They imbue the speaker with the confidence. Making a person feel valued and appreciated is easy to do in any interaction. Make it a priority.

Furthermore, if the conversation has a more heavy tone to it, one about a difference of opinion or critical feedback, good listeners were categorically identified as the ones who created a safe environment, where contrasts could be discussed openly. Again, Judo Listening embraces the maxim of all conversations being mutually beneficial.


Active Listening, once a shining beacon of good communication, is now more of a rusty relic. It's turned us into nodding, "mhmm"-ing robots, and not the empathetic, connected communicators we need to be. Rather than playing a paragraphing puppet, let's do a Judo flip on listening. Know yourself, your listening style, and tactically adapt to your context. Don't be a conversation psychic, trying to guess what's coming next. Do everyone a favor, and just sit back, relax, and meditate on what and who the focus of the conversation needs to be about.

Ultimately, people crave meaningful feedback, smart questions, and hopefully some excellent insight. They want the listener to notice the unsaid and help dig deeper. And above all, they want to feel good talking to the listener, who makes them feel safe, valued, and confident in their desires. So, next time you're in a conversation, remember - you're not Mr. Potato Head, you're a Judo master. Hay-ya!

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