Why Listening Is Undervalued, Underrated, and Challenging

This is an excerpt from Chapter 7: Facing the Unknown Like Lions in Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide for Inspiring Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement. For this format, some minor editing was necessary.

“I vowed to treat every encounter with every person on the ship as the most important thing at that moment.” — Michael Abrashoff

Kouzes and Posner state that those who practice extraordinary leadership are great listeners. Yet, listening isn’t easy, and most people aren’t effective listeners but believe that they are. These are probably the same people who believe that there is nothing insightful with the Facing the Unknown Like Lions leadership practice—“nothing new here and just the same old stuff that others have discussed!” Moreover, I have worked with several professionals at all levels of an organization who advocate listening but prefer talking to listening. Michael Abrashoff explains this preference to talking this way:

“Like most organizations, the Navy seemed to put managers in a transmitting mode, which minimized their receptivity.”

Why is listening, a skill that seems so simple, so difficult? The root problem isn’t that people don’t want to listen—they may have the best intentions to do so. Jason Jennings writes that the root problem may have more to do with how our brains comprehend the conversation:

“The average speaker talks at a rate of 135 words a minute. But the average listener comprehends at a rate 400 percent faster. This means that when you are listening, your mind unavoidably races ahead of the speaker. You can’t help but think other thoughts and sandwich in random observations as the speaker is telling you what she wants, thinks, or is concerned about. Your focus slips enough to routinely miss critical signals (an implication, a look of anxiety, or something subtle that changes the meaning of the word just spoken). That loss of focus causes you to ask the wrong questions at the wrong time and reach the wrong conclusions, making the dialog a lot less productive for you and irritating for the speaker.”

What you need are techniques to refine how you listen and process information. I call the collection of listening techniques, Serious Listening. These techniques stem from active listening. James C. Hunter describes active listening this way:

“Active listening requires a disciplined effort to silence all that internal conversation while we’re attempting to listen to another human being. It requires a sacrifice, an extension of ourselves, to block out the noise and truly enter another person’s world…Active listening is attempting to see things as the speaker sees them and attempting to feel things as the speaker feels them.”

Listening actively is a good start to Serious Listening, but Serious Listening involves more than just active listening. I summarize the Serious Listening techniques this way:

  1. Preparation: Before a dialogue or at the beginning of one, consciously remind yourself that you intend to fully practice Serious Listening and will self-evaluate afterward.
  2. Purpose: Listen for the other person’s purpose. People seldom start by explaining this.
  3. Seek Clarity: Ask questions and ask for examples to clarify the other person’s meaning. This could involve having the other person explain acronyms, concepts, or summations. For example, when Jack stated that the staff meeting was helpful, have Jack explain what helpful means in this context; have Jack clarify behaviors so you can understand how he arrived at the conclusion that the staff meeting was helpful. Paraphrase and summarize to confirm that you understand. This helps ensure that you are paying attention, and this enables the other person to correct and confirm.
  4. Observe the nonverbal behaviors: If in person, carefully watch facial expressions and posturing as indicators of emotions, expressions of openness, or signs of defensiveness.
  5. Attend to your nonverbal behaviors: Be aware of your own nonverbal behavior. Monitor what you are communicating with your posturing.
  6. After comprehending the message, contribute and confirm: After you ensure that you have clarity about what the other person is conveying, shift the dialogue to your perspective. As you express your thoughts and feelings, verify that the other person understands what you are communicating. You can accomplish this by asking clarifying questions.
  7. Summarize: Summarize the conversations and any tasks that you asked for or agreed to do. Summarizing can occur at the end of a conversation and as a follow-up such as in an email. This helps to ensure mutual expectations. Blanchard writes, “…as Stephen Covey says, ‘Nearly all conflict comes from differences in expectations.’”
  8. Express Thanks: Because you value communication, express your appreciation for the other person’s time and willingness to convey his or her thoughts and feelings. This reinforces your belief in how valuable others are to you.
  9. Assess how you performed: Reflect on the communication in terms of how well you performed by understanding the dialogue’s purpose, obtained clarity, observed the other person’s and your nonverbal behaviors, contributed your thoughts and feelings, confirmed the other person’s understanding of your thoughts and feelings, summarized, and expressed thanks.


  • Abrashoff, Captain D. Michael. It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. New York: Business Plus, 2002.
  • Jennings, Jason. The Reinventors: How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change. New York: The Penguin Group, 2012.
  • Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 5th edn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012.
  • Hunter, James C. The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership. New York: Crown Business, 2012.




Published by

Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT

"I help organizations become more effective at leadership development." Gary A. DePaul is an expert on how leadership is radically changing. He has two decades of experience as a practitioner and scholar of leadership, has worked as a manager in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. He completed his Ph.D. and Ed.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and a bachelor's degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). ISPI has designated him as a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT). https://www.garyadepaul.com https://twitter.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/garydepaul https://www.facebook.com/garyadepaul