Episode 223 – The Art of Pure Listening

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to the Becoming Your Best podcast, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and we are delighted to have you with us today! 


Recently, I listened to a TED Talk given by Brené Brown on vulnerability and it is one of the most listened to TED Talks ever! During the TED Talk, she described how being vulnerable is a strength and not a weakness. It doesn’t always feel that way when you are being vulnerable, but I’ll take her word for it because today I will be a bit vulnerable as I share an experience that is quite tender and embarrassing for me – and I hope my experience can be helpful and encouraging for you or others.  


Now, it is a sobering introduction to our subject of today, which is The Art of Pure Listening. And the purpose of listening is not just hearing words, but understanding. This podcast today could easily be entitled The Art of Pure Understanding. I like the Oxford definition of listening: “To listen is to give attention to sound or action, and when listening, one is hearing what others are saying and trying to understand what it means. The act of listening involves complex affective, cognitive and behavioral processes.” Simple, right? It sounds like listening means paying close attention, using all of our faculties. So, I love that definition! That’s one worth reading a few times over.  


Here is a brief background on our situation to properly set the stage for the story I wish to share. I’ve been married for 46 years to an extraordinary woman – Roxanne – and we are close. We’ve been blessed with six remarkable children and 20 energetic, smart, wild, crazy, and very amazing grandchildren, which I confess I am certainly not biased in any way, of course! I am an entrepreneur, a businessman, husband, father, I serve in the community and in church. Life seems busy! I’m blessed with a full and wonderful life! I’ve experienced successes and failures, I’ve won and I’ve lost, I felt joy and pain – and I’m still working on becoming my best, today.  


I’ve been influenced by many people, events, books, movies, etc., just like you have, and I have been deeply influenced by the Young Presidents Organization for 38 years – which is an organization comprised of 25,000 presidents of organizations throughout the world, dedicated to leader and leadership training and education – and also by the Harvard Business School, which is a rich source of continuing education on life and leadership. I’ve also been profoundly influenced by the people that I’ve worked together with, over the years.  


These influences, together with 40 years of research on what sets apart top performers from all others, led to the national best-selling book, “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders” – and I might add People. Each one of the 12 Principles of Becoming Your Best leads to greater well-being, high performance, and peak productivity, and when they are put together, they are life-changing and transformational!  


Principle #7 of the 12 is “Be An Effective Communicator”. This is one of the things that highly successful leaders and people do. Being an effective communicator impacts every single role that you have in life. Like anything else, most of us are not born with this skill or ability. Each one needs to learn, understand, practice and work on it over and over, and then one day, you wake up and you’re much better at it – it just starts becoming one of your strengths and abilities. Our observation is that Principle #7 may be the most challenging or difficult of the 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders to learn and put into practice. In our seminars or training, as we work on this principle with participants in role-playing activities and just practicing pure listening, frequent comments are “Whoa, that was hard!” or “This is no piece of cake!” Well, they’re exactly right! However, like anything else, as you repeatedly work on building this skill set, you get better and better, and it will be one of the most valuable skill sets that you own 


Now, for the story. In 2014, Roxanne, my wife, was diagnosed with dementia, which is a loss of memory and cognitive ability, as you know. This one is due to Alzheimer’s. The disease has taken its toll, and at this time we’ve moved her to a top-notch memory care facility, which is about four minutes from our home. It is really great to be with her although things have changed so much. We spend two to three hours almost every single day together. One of the ways that we can honor Roxanne is that we remember all of the good that she did, as we’re digitizing the prodigious legacy, the amazing legacy of scrapbooks, journals and wonderful home-making folders that she has left behind. It is a total inspiration, and I appreciate that legacy she’s left!  


She probably has written in her own handwriting – in other words, not typed-up – 10 journals. About six weeks ago, I was reading one of the journals. This journal is about 280 pages long. She’s a brilliant writer and created an index in the back, with subjects and page numbers. I scanned through the journal – it is positive and upbeat. It told about each one of our children, the adventures that they were going through, what school was like, what sports was like, their activities – I mean, it’s really fun – how they responded, what they were like. I looked through the index and noticed that the description on page 99 said, “I feel alone and very discouraged.” I thought to myself, “I’m in trouble!”  


Well, page 99 takes place in 1990. We’d been married for 16 years; I was 39 years old, and Roxanne was six months pregnant with our sixth child – a girl. Our other five children were all boys. The other pregnancies went well for Roxanne. I know that they’re not an easy ordeal for anyone, but they went reasonably well. This pregnancy was different. Roxanne started losing weight; she became so weak that she was fed through a tube and restricted to bed rest. We feared for her health and life. I became the cook, housekeeper, caregiver for five boys from the ages of two to 15, all at the same time being fully engaged in work and life. Finally, her parents took Daniel – our two-year-old – for several months on their ranch in southeast Idaho. I would go in to check with Roxanne and see how she was doing throughout the day, and I would get a list of anything that she needed.  


She recorded in her journal the following: “I have never felt more distant from Steve. He comes in to check on me, gets a list of things to do, and then leaves. A few minutes later, I hear him outside playing basketball with the children. I feel so alone and on top of everything else, it’s discouraging, and I don’t dare bring my feelings up, because I’m afraid I will get a lecture for 15 to 45 minutes. So, why bring anything up?” Well, when I read this in her journal, I just felt sick. Talk about being vulnerable. Well, there you goyou have it! Oh my goodness!  


Here I was, trying to take care of the children, keep the house clean, and thought I was protecting her. I wanted to shield her from noise or anything else, but missing the biggest part of all: how she was doing. If I only knew then what I have learned since, what I know now. All I needed to do was listen. Purely listen. I could have paused and quietly asked her, “How are you feeling? How are you holding up?” And thenjust listen. I realize now, even though I had studied communication, along with listening, I wasn’t doing a very good job in listening – as is evidenced by this journal entry. I failed at being a good listener.  


Being an effective communicator, there are really two parts to this, like two sides of the coin. Let me just describe these, and I might add, however it’s happened, I think I do better. I’ve had the chance to learn and practice and I’ll finish the rest of the story later. But, back to the two sides of communication, just imagine a coin; this could be a coin in your pocket or your purse. Side one of the coin is being a pure listener with one purpose, with every sense that you have – your five senses – so, your eyes and your hearing, your smell and so forth. And that is just to understand and confirm understanding. That’s side one: Pure listen with every sense that you have, understanding, and then confirm that you have understood, by asking them – and you just hang out there, there’s no need to go to side two.  


Now, side two is a completely different skill set, and it’s also a different mindset. The mindset for side one is, “I don’t know it all. I want to really listen, I want to understand.” That’s the mindset. The other part of side one is the skill set of being able to do it, and we’ll cover that briefly here before we’re done today. And side two, the mindset is, “We’re better together than we are alone, and so, let’s do this together.” It’s not MY way, it’s OUR way – this is most effective. And so, that’s the mindset and skill set. It’s a leadership skill that you may or may not use. You may not have to go to side two; just deploy side one and that goes a long way. Side two is to bring up something today that you think can make a difference for good. One of the best ways to bring it up is by saying, “I’ve been thinking about something and would be grateful to get your thoughts on it.” – and then introduce the subject and invite their thinking. You have one objective: trying to make things better – and it is more effective, typically, doing it together with others than by yourself, especially on a team or in an organization. You are most effective then, switching back to side one as needed, to just listen and understand another person’s point of view, and then go back and resume on side two.  


Now, going back to 1990, if I could have clearly understood that concept and principle, then I could have said, “How are you feeling?” or “How are you holding up?” And just listen; no self-disclosures, no lectures, no sharing of wisdom, no questions. Just listen – that day, the next day and the next day, keep doing it over and overThat’s all that was needed! Roxanne is an amazing, smart, and sensitive woman. She really didn’t need advice at that time. She just needed someone to visit with, to share, to be able to talk with. If she wanted advice she would have asked for it. And when you think of it, it wouldn’t really have taken much time. The result of this would have been a happier, more peaceful wife, and a couple that felt closer to one another.  


I believe, over the years, I’ve learned the lesson, the mindset, and the skill set. Side one of the coin: just hang out there, for a long time, as long as there is not a fire or an emergency. When there is a need for leadership or getting to a better solution, do it together – that’s side two the coin. In every role of life, just think how important it is for you to listen to those around you – at home, at work, with friends, or even in negotiation.  


Karl Menninger, who is an amazing leader and philosopher, shared this inspiring thought about listening: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing. It’s a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move forward towards. Whenever we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” Isn’t that wonderful? The chapter in Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders is an absolute goldmine, by the way, especially in this area, to be an effective communicator. It alone really is worth the whole book!  


Well, let’s quickly review some things that you can do to master the art of pure listening. Number one – this is side one – look the person in the eyes, give the other person your full attention, use every one of the five senses you possess. Number two, focus on the words. As many of you know, 7% of communication is through words, and 38% is the tone of the voice. So, get into their world. What are they saying? How are they saying it? Work not to psychoanalyze their words; just try to understand what they’re saying and how. And by the way, if 7% of communication is represented through words, this gives us a little clue of what a challenge it is to really communicate through emails, where you can’t hear the tone of voice, you can’t see the body language – which is number three, by the way: pay attention to the body language. 55% of communication is through body language.  


So, paying attention is the key word here. Really observe what you see. This is why, in virtual communication, webcams are so far superior to a telephone call. The technology in our world has changed so much, and so, whenever you can, try to have webcam communication where you can see a person’s face and really improve the level of communication. Remember, your brain is a supercomputer, and you can take the input and be right with where they are. So carefully track and respond to their feelings and words – it’ll help you track where they’re at. 


Number four and five are among the most critical. That is, as a person is sharing, acknowledge the person’s feelings or questions: “Thank you! I appreciate you sharing this.” This is the skill set. These five steps are the skill set. You can get them down and do them every time. “Thank you for the courage for bringing this up.” There’s no judging, there’s no questions, no sharing of wisdom, no cross-examination – just a sincere expression of appreciation, so that you acknowledge, whatever words you use.  


Step five is perhaps the most important! Repeat back and check for understanding. As you listen carefully, you are like an observant detective, noticing clues and indicators. You don’t even have to ask questions. You can just notice things, words, expressions, feelings, intent, and content. Be where they are, not in a different place in the woods or on a different planet! I have seen that more times than you can imagine. You can effectively mimic or mirror, as a tool to show and check for understanding. So, you’re just checking in to see if you got it right, and they’ll tell you if you don’t. So, you can use words like, “It sounds like” and drill these down until you have them. Share them with other people, have a quiz.  


So, these are the words to really be sure you’ve mirrored the understanding: “It sounds like such and such” or “It seems like this is how you’re feeling” or “It looks like” or “It feels like.” So, those four words are very powerful. “It sounds like you’re not sure” or “It seems like you’re really discouraged about this”, or “It looks like you’re really excited” or “It feels like you’re not sure what to do.” Occasionally, you can repeat their last one to three words. That’s just a mimic – “You’re concerned…” That’s the example of it. And then listen. They’ll confirm or correct you. Check in and be sure that you have it right. 


Jamie Throup: Hi, friends! This is Jamie Thorup – the Becoming Your Best Vice President in Client Services. Thanks, Steve, for such a moving, valuable podcast! I would like to share with our listeners that Chapter 7 in the book “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders” is jammed-packed with timeless tips on how to be an effective communicator. That chapter is worth the modest price of the whole book! You can get it on Amazon in Audible, Kindle or book form, or write to I hope that you’re enjoying this podcast. Now, back to the show! 


Steve Shallenberger: A few months ago, I attended a day-long seminar on negotiations – this is a really terrific seminar. For me, it was life-changing, really! I mean, it helped me in many ways to improve my skills. The leader for the day was one of the top negotiators in the world on terrorism and hostages for the FBI. We literally spent one half of the day role-playing “It sounds like; It feels like; It seems like; It looks like” as we responded to the person’s role – which at times I might add, we were put in situations that were quite intense. These words worked magic! The use of these words reduces anger, tension, stress, while at the same time increasing trust and confidence to move forward.  


What was reinforced is the tremendous impact that one person can have on the outcome, by being good at developing and using this skill set. It is a game-changer! So, what will you do from here? Well, one of the things you can do is print out the Five Steps of Being an Effective Listener and drill them into your mind and use the words – there’s a transcript of this podcast available – just get this down: “It sounds like; it seems like; it looks like; it feels like.” Alternate the use of these as you’re checking for understanding. And remember, in order to build a new habit, you need to do something 63 – 65 times. It’s repetition, and then it becomes yours. 


Now, I’d like to share the rest of the story with Roxanne. On June 3rd, we had a beautiful baby girl, Anne. Oh, she’s been amazing! Of course, she was not spoiled at all, being the last child and being daddy & mommy’s girl, right? She’s been a huge blessing to our family! She will turn 30 this year and has two gorgeous little girls herself. Daniel, the two-year-old who went with Roxanne’s parents to the ranch in southeast Idaho, reluctantly returned home and got back in the mix of the family. Daniel now has a wonderful wife and they have three little redheaded boys of their own. What an adventure all of the kids are having! All six of our children are married and raising their own families, having their own experiences.  


I’ve asked Roxanne to forgive me for not being a good listener when it would have really helped. I’ve apologized, and fortunately, she forgave me. I’m trying to make up for it every day by being a good listener now. The last 25 years have been among the very best years for Roxanne and me – with an occasional bump, of course – but we feel close and happy together. Those years have helped us with the experiences we’re having today. My goal has been to help her feel like a 10, and I’m still trying to get it right: checking in with her, “How are you doing? How are you feeling?” And then, I listen. “On a scale of one to 10, how are you doing? On a scale of one to 10, where are you on the happy scale? How about the healthy scale, the energy scale? How are you feeling about our relationship, on a scale of one to 10?” And then, I just listen.  


I try to do this with my other roles in life, as well – work, personal, community, and family. Later, if I feel I can help, I will bring up side two of the communication coin if I feel like I have an idea or a thought that may be helpful for us: “I’ve been thinking about an idea and wondering if I can get your thoughts on it. What do you think might be the impact of doing this? How do you think we might be able to improve upon this?” Then, if needed, you may need to go back to side one and just listen. “Let me be sure I have this. It sounds like… It seems like…” You’re not a robot on this. You have to really want to genuinely listen and people will appreciate this, you’ll see this.  


Today, I feel a bit like the old owl. I love the quote by Edward H. Richards that goes, “The wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?” Well, I challenge each one of you listening today to do what we’ve talked about with someone important in your life. See what happens! Stay at it! 63 – 65 times until it’s a habit. They may ask you if you’re all right. They’ll say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” But be determined you will master the art of pure listening. People will praise you for it. You will be a rock star!  


My friend and wonderful pastor – he’s a great guy – Dean Jackson, shared the following: “Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego and others over self.” We didn’t say it would be easy; we just said it would be worth it! We’re wishing you the best in this great journey of becoming your best – and you probably already are a great listener, but we wish you the best in the art of pure listening! This is Steve Shallenberger, wishing you a great day! 


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