Expert Tricks and Tactics for Being a Better Active Listener

My favorite tips and tricks on how to be a better active listener that I learned from reading You're Not Listening, by Kate Murphy.


Here’s my favorite factoid from Kate Murphy’s book, You’re Not Listening:

Our brains can process about four times more words per minute (500-800) than people can speak (120-150).

Given such excess capacity, you’d think it shouldn’t be so hard for us to be better listeners, right?

But it gets worse.

Of those 120-150 words per minute someone speaks to you, how many actually stick in your slippery ear canals rather than slide right out the other side? Maybe 20-30?

So of our brain’s max capacity of 500-800 WPM, we only process maybe 20-30.


It’s like owning a heavy-duty pickup truck, but only using it to shuttle individual small parcels around town.

Much of the fault lies in speakers who package their information like Amazon shipping a nail file in a box big enough for a baby to play with. Even so, we could all do better at gathering more from their blathering by actively listening.

And if we did, we’d be rewarded:

  • We’d have more engaging conversations.
  • We’d learn more.
  • Those people we listen to so attentively would be more likely to return the favor and listen to us.

It’s a virtuous cycle.

To start it spinning, put that brain your mamma gave you to better use with my favorite active listening tips and tricks from You’re Not Listening.

1. Grab your imaginary microphone.

My favorite active listening trick I picked up from Murphy’s book is this:

Pretend you’re a reporter who needs to write a magazine article about what the other person is trying to tell you.

Try not to go into your interview intending to write a hit-piece. Play the part of an even-handed journalist out to extract the unbiased truth.

When I remember to use this mindset, I find it helps keep me focused, stokes my curiosity, and gets me asking better questions. Plus, it seems to make listening more fun and engaging.

2. Give yourself a steady assignment.

The challenge I find with using this reporter’s mindset is that I don’t actually have an editor up my butt with a strict assignment and tight deadline to keep me focused. And, speaking of unfocused, most conversations cover an incoherent collection of topics.

So how do you manage that?

Murphy suggests keeping your active listening objective the same for every conversation. Your assignment? Come out of it with answers to the following three questions:

  1. Why is this person telling you this?
  2. What does it mean to them?
  3. What can I learn from this?

Sometimes, though, there is no purpose, meaning, or lesson to be extracted from the gibberish you’re trying to pay attention to. Then what?

If you come to this conclusion, the problem’s not your listening ability—it’s the quality of your conversation. Try leading it toward something more meaningful by asking better questions.

3. Lead with better questions.

The right questions build an ever-important rapport with the person you’re listening to and lead your conversation in interesting directions you don’t have to strain so hard to pay attention to.

And the wrong questions do the opposite. So avoid the following:

  • Interrogating questions like “What do you do for a living?” or “Are you married?” They make it seem like you’re sizing up that person rather than trying to get to know them.
  • Leading questions like, “Isn’t it a waste of fuel driving around town in that big honking truck?” or “How cool do I look in this purple leopard fedora?” They rob people of their stories by putting the ones you want to hear into their mouths.
  • Appraising “Why?” questions like, “Why are you telling me this?” or “Why do you buy nail files from Amazon?” These make your interviewee feel the need to defend themselves. You’re pretending to be a reporter, not a lawyer, remember.

So what questions should you try asking instead?

Start with every ace reporter’s favorite leading three words:

“Tell me about….”

Let them give you their story. It’ll likely be something you hadn’t suspected.

Then, to further build the rapport, throw in the occasional, “Wait. Back up. I don’t understand.” Do it even if you think you understand. This demonstrates you’re interested, helps you correct misunderstandings, and potentially catches your interviewee in a lie (if that’s what you’re after).

4. Avoid the urge to act like a therapist.

One potential downside of becoming a better active listener?

People are more likely to unload their problems and insecurities on you as if you’re Barbara Walters or Dr. Phil or something.

As a well-intentioned listener/reporter/therapist, you may naturally seek to:

  • Suggest you know how they feel.
  • Identify the cause of the problem.
  • Help them figure out what to do about the problem.
  • Minimize their concerns.
  • Bring perspective with positivity or platitudes.
  • Show admiration for their strength.

But don’t do those things—at least not unless the person specifically asks you to.

Any attempt to fix, advise, correct, or soothe communicates to the problem-possessing person that you think they can’t handle their solution on their own. That may very likely be true, but that’s not what they want from you as a listener.

You’re not a therapist. You’re a reporter. Remember the three questions in your assignment—Why is this person telling you this? What does it mean to them? And what can I learn from this?—and seek to understand.

In any case, the best way to help people solve their problems is to listen to them figure out the solution on their own. “The solutions to problems are often already within people,” puts Murphy in her book, “and just by listening, you help them access how best to handle things.”

5. Show you’re listening with what you say.

Eventually, most people you listen to will take a second to catch their breath and give you a chance to contribute your two cents.

But you don’t have to. Responding, “I don’t know what to say,” or “I’d like to think about what you just said,” is not only perfectly acceptable but endearing.

Try it.

And, for extra effect, pause a few seconds before saying it. Rather than make you seem stupid, it makes you seem thoughtful by showing you were so busy actively listening that you didn’t have the time to think about what to say next.

And if you do come up with something worth saying, keep listening as you speak. Gauge their reactions and try asking, “What do you think?” or “Am I making any sense?”

In all likelihood, the person you talk to won’t do as good a job gathering your blathering as you did listening to them. That’s natural. They haven’t read this post yet, let alone Murphy’s book.

Until they do, be a leader: let them talk some more and show them how it’s done.

Ready for your assignment?

Next time someone has something to tell you, put on your imaginary reporter’s lanyard and see if you can apply these active listening tricks and tactics to increase the number of valuable words per minute that stick in your brain.

And if you want more tips on how to be a better listener, get yourself a copy of Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening.

PS: If none of the above helps you improve at active listening, either get your hearing checked or get a bigger traffic cone like mine in the cover image.

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