How to really listen to improve working relationships with colleagues and clients

In this video, Marie discusses the principle of ‘unconditional positive regard’.  But how does the notion of unconditional positive regard – of accepting someone warts and all – relate to good listening skills?

Well, to listen and listen deeply, we much first accept someone for who they. When we only give someone our attention on condition that they behave a certain way, or say the ‘right’ things, then we are inadvertently sending the talker a message, which says: “I’m judging you”.  And when people feel judged, they will hold back from sharing information and speaking openly.

But when we listen, without wanting anything from a person or trying to change who they are, we provide, for many people, a rare fertile landscape in which a deep relationship can take root. We sow the ground for someone to really open up to us, and when this happens we can start to really deepen relationships with others. When people feel heard and validated, they share more freely. We can understand someone’s agenda and the values behind their agenda, and create win-wins.

But how many of us can truly say we have more than a couple of relationships in which we feel truly understood, accepted without judgement, and listened to as a person of worth?

Why are the vast majority of us so bad at listening?

Of all the skills that we as trainers and executive coaches see performed consistently badly it is the ability to listen. Listening requires effort – mental concentration to tune in, to stop ourselves interrupting and telling someone our own experiences and opinions. Indeed, most of us prefer the sound of our own voice, since talking is a way of validating our existence: by talking we are affirming who they are. We talk in hope that we feel people understand us; whereas if we listen, we are seeking to understand someone, and for many, what’s the point of that!

Even when we are not doing all the talking, we take for granted that by letting someone talk and not interrupting them that we’re listening effectively. But most of the time, half way through a conversation, we’re done listening for we think we know where the conversation is going and we’re ready with a hand hovering over the buzzer to inject to take control or redirect the conversation, and in doing so we fail to listen and we miss important information. Or we realise that we’ve had a personal experience of what the other’s person is talking about, so easy, we can tell them what you did and what they need to do to solve their issue.  So we half-listen, waiting to respond.

Half-listening & its affect on our relationships

At a recent executive coach training workshop for a multinational investment bank, we showed participants the list below of 10 half-listening habits. All the workshop participants agreed that at some point they’ve done one or more of these. In fact, at some point or other we’ve all been guilty of half-listening.


  1. Listening to make people think you’re interested so they will like you.
  2. Listening in case you’re in danger of getting rejected.
  3. Listening in for a very specific piece of information while ignoring everything else they’re
  4. Listening to buy yourself more time to think about your next comment.
  5. Listening so that the person you’re talking to will in turn listen to you.
  6. Listening to find the weak spots in someone’s character or the weak points in an argument.
  7. Listening to check how people are reacting and to make sure you produce the desired effect.
  8. Listening because that’s what a good, kind person would do – rather than talking about yourself, which is self indulgent.
  9. Listening because you don’t know how to excuse yourself without hurting or offending someone
  10. Listening because you’re daydreaming.

We all have our own work, our own goals and daily chores, and each day we deal with own thoughts, emotions and feelings, so it’s little wonder when we have contact with other people we habitually half-listen; we simply don’t have the time nor energy to do otherwise. But half-listening to key stakeholders in business such as an important client or our boss, or to our partner or to people we care about, will not create the trust and respect required to develop strong relationships.

The 5 levels of listening

To listen effectively we need to concentrate and learn how to really tune into to somebody else.  To do this we need to engage ourselves in ‘Active listening’, which can be seen in Level Five below. (This five-stage model we use in several of our online e learning courses.)

Level one: Interrupting

At this level, we’re not listening at all – we’re only concerned about what we have to say.

“I am having some problems with discipline in my team.”
“Yes, but I want to talk to you about hiring some consultants.”

Level Two: Sharing

At Level two, we’ve heard what the speaker has said and we want to share what happened when we had a similar experience. We’re hijacking the other person’s comments to take control of the conversation.

“I am having some problems with discipline in my team.”
“I’m finding that too. Last week I…”

Level Three: Advising

We want to help and impart our knowledge, and while giving advice can be valuable, it is not until you have explored the issue and encouraged people to come up with their own solutions.

“I am having some problems with discipline in my team.”
“What you should do is…”

Level Four: Attentive Listening

At this level, we’re moving into basic coaching territory. We’re listening to what the speaker is saying and inviting more. We’re allowing the speaker time to think, and we’re showing you are listening.

“I am having some problems with discipline in my team”
“Would you like to tell me more about that?”

Level Five: Active Listening

To get to this level, we need to put our own agenda, assumptions and needs aside completely. And we need to accept someone for who they are – without trying to change who they are. This is when we should seek to provide unconditional positive regard.

At this level, we’re listening behind and in between the words; listening to the silences; using our intuition; prompting the talker to explore; clarifying and reflecting, facilitating their self learning and awareness; making suggestions.

“I am having some problems with discipline in my team”
“I can really feel and hear that it’s a serious issue for you. Tell me about it?”

Level Five listening requires practice, know-how and self-awareness. At this level we’re tuning into the tone and intonation of a person’s voice, and observing their body language, their facial expressions, where their eyes lead – all are layers of information that will help you tune in and really ‘listen’ to where someone is emotionally and indeed, spiritually.

When you listen at Level Five, you’re hearing what is being said, noticing your intuition and seeing the non-verbal signals. Learn to listen at Level Five and apply this within key relationships in your life and you’ll see immediate, highly positive results.

Our online workshops look to improve your listening skills and build effective relationships

Several of Unchain Your Brain video workshops look into this key skill of listening in greater depth.

Our video workshop courses are some of the best online business courses for those looking to become upskilled in their workplace. Our video classes are a combination of training videos and self-completion training tools, as well one-to-one tutor support. So, if you’re looking for an online course specifically for business soft skills, take a look at our list of online training courses.

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  1. I love the half listening list – esp ‘Listening to buy yourself more time to think about your next comment’.

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