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Why we Need Listening Lessons: How to Listen Between The Lines

Posted on Jan 2, 2013 by in ThiNK First | 8 comments

Listening is an important skill and yet when did we ever learn to listen? Who gives listening lessons?

Do we know what’s the difference between a good and a bad listener?

Who teaches us to discern what’s really being said or not said?

We all know we should listen more. Social media has extended the idea of “conversation” and today there are many more ways to listen. Listening got bigger. The rise of Listening has been talked about for a while.

I wrote a post about how, because of social media, we need to be conscious that we are being listened to as part of a series of posts on lurkers and lurking

We’re all talking about listening. There’s an irony there somewhere. So what are we doing to be better at listeners?

Listening is a great place focus your attention right now – or that’s my feeling. It’s easy to converse, but were we actually ever any good at listening. I sense not.

The Tools to Listen 

Is it hard not to listen today? Listening has a much broader definition. We can listen via comments on our blog and via Google Alerts, Twitter etc.  There are many listening tools. Here’s a list. Feel free to add any omissions.

Listening has a big technology component, but this post is focusing on being human and becoming an awesome listener.

With listening the bigger issue is one of quality over quantity. Listening more is great, but listening better is going to deliver more value and let you make better decisions.  Listening is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listening is a learning tool and a learned art.

I’ve seen many people listening for what they want to hear or to support their own theory. When you do this, you can prove:

  • That your customers loved your product
  • That what you had was indeed a great idea
  • That you are beautiful/ funny / sexy / unique (insert your own permutations here)

I’m half teasing but it’s true. We’ve all done it. So be warned. You are only deferring failure. The truth hurts but it can also save your business.

We can listen to empathize with a friend and that’s a skill all on its own. In business, often we’re mostly listening to learn what we don’t know. We might not like what we hear. We might not believe it.

But we need to listen, log and then analyze. Too often we do all three at once, never actually focusing on the listening part.

Listening between the lines

Bad listening is easy, but what about good listening? How is that done?

I’ve often use the expression “Listen between the lines”. I know precisely what I mean. We’re all familiar with the expression of reading between the lines. With the extension of “Listening” to match the notion of social conversations it now fits that listening can refer to spoken word and to written word. Listening has evolved to mean the feedback cycle.

Lines are a convenient pattern in the written word. There’s a natural space between the words that we write, but are people hiding meaning in those gaps. Is the writer communicating a hidden truth? A real feeling? Are they hiding their feelings or are they really wanting you to discover their meaning? Oddly, there is no difference between reading and listening to someone speak. We can listen between the lines in just the same way:

  • What is not being said?
  • What does the body language or punctuation tell you?
  • What tone is used to say what’s being said?
  • How does this compare to when someone is talking about something less contentious?

Listening can require all your senses, depending on the medium. Listening is watching. Listening is feeling. Body language is an essential component of listening, but more on that shortly.

Often the talker does not even know they are being guarded. The listener can appear guarded too and that will impact what you really take away from the exchange. So relax into your listening experience. It’s your job to relax your talker.

From a marketing perspective you need to get beyond friends and relatives. These people tell you what you want to hear regardless. Of course your baby is beautiful. And each time you ask or re-ask questions you need a new group of people to ask. Virgin reactions only. You need fresh input. You can revisit earlier interviewees, but only to keep them in the loop.

Find yourself people who don’t care about you or your stupid idea. When they have nothing to prove, you can really listen, because they will tell you what they really think.

Most people don’t know what they are not saying. It’s your job to discover the truth. Listening and questioning are your two tools.

Perhaps they are saying it in their own head, perhaps they think they are clearly expressing their thoughts or their experience. It’s worth noting the experience you are seeking feedback on probably means more to you, so don’t expect perfect recall. Perhaps they don’t even know the truth. We process feelings and make thoughts. And that’s what he person you are asking is doing it too.

With the volume of data we process, sometimes our memories and our thoughts and feelings become fused. We can’t tell them apart. Often there’s things hiding out between what’s actually being said that the speaker doesn’t even know. Their subconscious is poking through the gaps. Why are they being hesitant? Why did their eyes light up at that moment?

It’s your job to get curious. Listening often means not talking.

Lie to Me

Two Sides to Every Story

I love the TV show Lie to Me. Apart from the awesome British accent and the humour, the show really demonstrates how to listen between the lines. You don’t need to be as extreme, but every improvement in your listening skills can dramatically improve the outcome of your project. It’s worth the effort.

Context and perception are everything when it comes to giving and receiving communication.

When you tell a story, what is actually heard? The process is reversed when you are listening.

What do you actually hear vs what do you want to hear vs what does the person want you you hear?

Communication is a complex business.

  • We all have agendas
  • We all have fears
  • We all have needs and wants and desires
  • We all have shame
  • We all have vulnerability

Your truth is not somebody else’s truth. Truth is just perspective. Truth is the story we tell, the story we manufactured. The story we choose to tell. What elements are we omitting? We like to tell neat and tidy stories and real experiences are never neat and tidy.

The Elements of Personal Human Communication: Spoke Words vs Voice & Tone vs Body Language

In life, we’ve each walked a unique path. Our perceptions are our own and they shape our individual paths. We need to try and strip away the addition of your perspective when we listen. It’s about not judging. You are listening to gather source data. You are trying to find out what people really feel. You can process and add your own thoughts and reactions later. Look for the feelings.

When you listen, focus on capturing not processing. You have the live person in front of you, on the phone or on Skype of Google Hangout or FaceTime. You can’t return to this moment, so don’t lose the value. Record it. At least makes notes.

Just voice should be your last option.

You are missing so many signals if you think of listening as an audio only experience. Tone, voice and body language make up the lions share of the data you receive. I strongly recommend recording these interactions.

Simplify Your Sharing Experience

When you report on your findings you face another problem. You have to explain your reactions and findings to your colleagues. They were not there and did not see or experience the source conversation –  you did.

Today recording is cheap and simple. The only thing that’s stopping you is asking for permission and the mindset that it’s OK. You need to get comfortable with being recorded too.

You cannot rerecord a priceless moment, so don’t let them slip by unrecorded.

Listening is about data capture. Your can process the information later, but can’t get more data outside of the moment. Listening may be a linear experience, but there can be non linear moments. Don’t be afraid to jump back and revisit.

Takes notes as you listen so you don’t forget to jump back or drill on a moment or an expression.

That’s what happens in the spaces in between. That’s where the connections lie.

Filling Out the Whole Picture

Our landscapes are complex. Listening can  be like putting a jigsaw together.

Listening between the lines is like were making out the big box picture or looking for the missing pieces. We know some elements of the picture, but were trying to connect the dots. Find what lies between the known data points.

  • Are we asking enough questions?
  • Are we being curious enough?

Don’t just ask questions, probe. Share the moment with them as if you were there. Share their experience. Replay it to them and ask how felt.

Don’t be afraid of silence. Pausing can be powerful. Build on the moment. Ask them to rethink the experience from another perspective. In so doing, you are helping them validate their memory. This will perhaps let them recall new information.

Let people breathe, let them think out loud. Listen for the gaps and the unsaid.

Don’t be so quick to judge. Don’t be afraid to ask the same question in different ways.

Most of all keep being curious. Act and believe like you don’t know the answer.

In the lines between the spoken words and the conscious actions lie the treasures you seek .

What’s really being said? It’s your job to find it. How are you going to become a more active listener? How are you going to be less judgmental?

Image Credit : 21524179 via and Creative Commons

Nick Kellet (164 Posts)

Nick is co-founder the social curation platform Listly, that combines crowdsourcing, content curation and embedable lists to drive high-level community engagement, live inside your blog posts. Connect with Nick on Twitter · Linkedin, Facebook and G+ and follow his writing via his other guest posts and on his blogs at and


  1. Hi Nick,
    One of my New Year resolutions is to stop being so judgemental – of myself as well as of others – and it’s interesting that you link this to being a better listener. It’s a really good point. So I guess the first step is to shut up and stop talking so much – not just out loud, I mean stopping some of the mindless chatter that goes on in my head, so I can actually hear what’s going on. 
    Lots of food for thought – thanks!

    • SusanNeal We are always the first to judge ourselves. Is this post good enough? Should I send this email? Did I really say that? Judging is not good. 
      I like the idea of always standing on your toes, being ready and willing to move. It doesn’t mean you have to.  Just being open to the possibility makes you a better listener. 
      Thanks for commenting. And good luck with your resolution 🙂

  2. Great post. Thanks. We were at a FOE6 this year listening to a panel called “Listening and empathy: Making companies More Human”, and someone, cannot remember who, said aptly that most people or businesses are “active in their lack of curiosity”. Thought your two lines, “Most of all keep being curious. Act and believe like you don’t know the answer.” Are spot on. 

    • TheBlendAgency We do lack curiosity. Most of us have it beaten out of us by the end of childhood. It takes courage to stand up and ask real questions
      I find it ironic that many of us say “I don’t get it” which really mean I can’t be bothered to listen or figure it out. That reminds me of a post I wrote. I’m a huge fan of empathy. I loved a Whole New Mind. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yup, I think that most people just will not take the time to actually figure it out. We are such an ADD culture, if we don’t get it immediately, it’s on to the next thing. Going to read your other post you referenced now. I wrote one today about what we can learn from 3 year olds. Just keep asking Why. Thanks mate. Now I am off to read.

  3. Hi nickkellet Thanks for this awesome post (and congrats on the fresh blog-design) I happily added it to my weekly list of awesome blog posts.
    Here is a copy of my comment:

    “I trust @NickKellet as one of my major influencers and thought leaders since I started this Social Media journey.
    In this post he picks up what I’ve said since I heard @brianSolis TEDx talk
    Nick is right, we need listening lessons!”

    • Tweet4OK thanks. I’m really liking your weekly posts. Fun to see if I make it. Fun to see what I miss.

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