Last week someone stopped me in the midst of a training and asked me to clarify what I meant by “deep listening.” The question should not have startled me as much as it did, since deep listening is a concept I refer to often. I’m glad that it did startle me, and I’m glad she raised her hand, as I have a tendency to create my own cliché and unthinking orations, not taking the time to really define what I mean.

So what is it?

Deep Listening is a skill set that is absolutely paramount to strong facilitation, effective coaching and thoughtful, creative leadership.  I compare deep listening to the way that you listen when you chat with someone that you love (your child, a partner, a friend, a family member). You care deeply for this person: you want to know their experience, who they are today, what they have to say, and what you can learn from them in that given moment. Their story matters to you.

This is the same approach you should give to a community member you’re helping, a colleague or someone you manage sitting across from you, or just someone sharing their story with you. Deep listening is active, engaged, attentive listening with everything you’ve got.

Here are three approaches to make sure you can create a deep listening mindset for yourself:

  1. Be Present

Let go of distractions … actively and consciously set the following things aside:

– Emails and texts … nothing is more important right now than the person in front of you, you can answer that email later, it will still be there, I promise.

– Phones and computers (do you really need those out during a meeting?)

– The news you just heard on the radio before arriving at the meeting (unless it’s something imminent that you must take care of immediately of course … just be honest about that!)

– Your to-do lists for all the other projects (again, those lists will still be there when you’re done with this conversation. Nothing is more important than the person in front of you).

  1. Ask Curious Questions

Get into a place where you ask the person sharing, questions, questions that help you clarify what they are saying, questions that help you better understand the situation and the context, questions that help you know their experience better.

“How are you doing?”


“Tell me a bit more about that? What’s going on today? What could make today better for you?”

Whew, that’s a big step.  We generally share a mutual “okay” or “great” in response to that ubiquitous question and then we move on … but what if we dug deeper, and listened deeply?

  1. Show Compassion

If you are present and ask curious questions, genuinely … the compassion emerges.

To stay compassionate, be aware when you’ve stopped listening deeply and thus compassion has waned. Here are some indicators that you might just be ‘listening’ (if at all) and not deep listening:

– You are passing judgment on something that was just said

– You are about to say, “oh, something similar happened to me” (or variations thereof), there is a time for that as a way of connecting, but not during deep listening

– Your are still thinking about your next meeting or that email you need to answer

– You’re writing down your grocery list instead of words and ideas being shared with you on your notes page

– You’re typing on the computer or looking at Facebook during a phone meeting

– All three of your key listening senses are not engaged:

  1. Hearing: words, volume, voice inflection, emotion
  2. Feeling: tenor/ tone of what’s being said, energy of the person/of the room
  3. Seeing: Body language, room, distances between people, facial expressions

Activities to Practice

  1. An easy way to practice deep listening is simply to have a conversation with someone and check that you’re being present, asking curious questions, and showing compassion as described above. Reflect, maybe even journal on how it went and how it impacted you. Make some notes about how you feel you did, about what distracted you and why, and what you might do differently or better next time.
  2. Another fun way to practice deep listening is to head outside and stretch your senses by listening for the quietest sound. Can you hear a leaf scratching the pavement? A distant bird? A hybrid car idling?
  3. Share your experience with others … create a team training where you alternate practicing storytelling and deep listening. See what common themes and challenges emerge.