Powerful Listening – by Chris Balsley

One critical skill a leader can put into place is the ability to listen powerfully. As represented by the title of this book, Stop Controlling, Start Leading, when the going gets tough, some of us (I am guilty of it, too)try to impose control and structure.

When this happens, a major way that control shows up is in the form of not listening. In fact, when we’re stressed, we can spend up to 85% of our time in conversation with someone, waiting for them to shut up so that we can say what we want to say. Not listening can happen because we don’t trustothers and only want to rely on our own information. It can also happen because we are stressed and under time constraints and don’t want to take the time to listen. Sometimes we are just irritated. We want to get our work done, and listening simply annoys us. In the short term, not listening might work; however, over the long term, it builds a culture of distrust and a fear of reprisal, which can kill creativity.

Powerful listening is a remedy to all of that. When we stop and take the time to listen to others, we impart several messages, such as “You’re worth my time. What you have to say is important, and I am not too busy to stop and listen.” These messages create trust in those around us. Trust is critical, because it is the emotion that drives us to engage in future work with someone.

The first thing to focus on when practicing powerful listening is, “Don’t fix anything!” Carl Rogers, who was the father of powerful listening, said, “If you feel like you have a good idea, hit yourself in the head with a hammer, lie down and wait for it to pass.” Powerful listening is about them, not us.

Always check out how well you are listening with phrases like, “I could be wrong, and what I hear is…” or “I am not sure about this, so I want to check it out…” or “Did you just say (fill in the blank)?” and “Correct me if I’m wrong….”

If you are beginning to sense a trend, you’re right. When you choose to practice powerful listening skills, never give advice! It can decrease trust when you do. Intentional and powerful listening can be very hard. It means dropping your need to be heard and not making the conversation about you. It also means dropping your desire to be seen as being a brilliant leader who listens well.

A huge part of powerful listening is paraphrasing back what people are communicating to you. Be sure to focus on more than word choice. Include the nonverbal as well.

Imagine talking to your boss about something bad that is happening at work. The first time she says, “Yeah, I heard about that. But you know what happened to me the other day? They forgot to sign me out of the server and it stayed on all night.” Now imagine saying the same thing to your boss, only this time she comes back with, “I heard you say you’re really upset by what is happening right now. You look really tight. As long as I have known you, things like this don’t seem to bother you. is must really be a big deal.” Which example demonstrates powerful listening?

Stages of reflecting

Stage 1 – Repetition with no word change:
Speaker: “I am not feeling so well today.”
Listener: “I hear you saying that you’re not feeling so well today.”
Impact: is can be very annoying. Try to avoid word-for-word repetition.

Stage 2 – Repetition with the order of words changed and some word substitution:
Speaker: “I am not feeling so well today.”
Listener: “I hear you’re a little bit under the weather.”
Impact: Most people never get heard, even at this basic level.

Stage 3 – No repetition. Use your own words and add some interpretation:
Speaker: “I am not feeling so well today.”
Listener: “I can see that. To me you clearly look a little under the weather. Your voice sounds hoarse and you look a bit flushed.”
Impact: While this seems simple, it can be very powerful!


Validating lets people know they are okay for feeling the way they do.

Speaker: “I am not feeling so well today. I am a bit worried about getting all of this done.”
Listener: “You look a little under the weather. Your face seems flushed. With your heavy workload, I can see why you might be a bit worried about getting sick. If I were in your shoes, I would feel the same way that you do. No, you’re not crazy.”
Impact: This is where trust is really deepened and relationships strengthened.

Remember when using powerful listening to make the conversation about them, not about you. You can talk about yourself later. Powerful listening does not include phrases like “I know that” or “I hear you,” which can shut down a conversation and break trust. Paraphrasing can be really hard to do because of a simple misconception: I am afraid that if I paraphrase back what you said, you will think I agree with you. Paraphrasing is about understanding someone. It has nothing to do with agreeing with someone.

Now that we have covered the basics of powerful listening, I would like to show some different options, followed by a real-life example of how listening shifted a relationship. e following paragraph is a made-up rant from a worker followed by several options of paraphrasing. is kind of listening is deceptively powerful. While it sounds as if the

listener is just randomly following the speaker, nothing could be further from the truth. Because we can choose what to paraphrase back, we get to direct the conversation.

Rant: “I hate it when you ask me to do extra stuff ! I have told you this before and you never listen. I feel disrespected. Why don’t you ever listen to me? I feel

“To understand does not mean to agree! These are two very different things.”

so invisible around here. I have to do all of the work assigned to me, then I have to do inventory, and if I have any time left, I have to do whatever else you want me to do. Who do you think cleans around here, huh? Do I get a simple thank-you? Oh no, all I get is not being listened to. This is useless. Why even bother trying? I hate it when you ask me to do extra stuff ! I have told you this before and you never listen. I feel disrespected.”

Now I am going to paraphrase different parts of what the speaker said to see if we create different outcomes.

Option #1

This is the part of the rant I am focusing on: I have told you this before and you never listen.

Response: “I get that you are upset, that you feel like we have been here before. Did I get it? Is there more?”

Impact: Where do you think this will lead the conversation?

Option #2

Now I am focusing on a different part of the rant: Do I get a simple thank-you? Oh no, all I get is not being listened to. This is useless. Why even bother trying?

Response: “When I heard you say, ‘No matter what we do, nothing seems to change,’ it sounded to me like you felt hopeless. I am just checking this out. Are you saying that you’re finished here, or do you really want to be heard and see if things can change?”

Impact: Clearly this will lead the conversation down a different path.

Option #3

Here I will paraphrase yet another part of the conversation back to the speaker: Why don’t you ever listen to me? I feel so invisible around here.

Response: “You’re saying that sometimes I don’t hear you and when that happens you feel invisible? Did I get that right?”

Impact: is will take the conversation into yet another direction. If I wanted to add the step of validation, it might look like this:

Response: “You are not crazy. I have had that feedback before. Can you give me another chance to listen?”

Option #4

Here is another example of validation that focuses on a the following part of the rant: I have to do all of the work assigned to me, then I have to do inventory and if I have any time left, then I have to do whatever else you want.

Response: “When my plate is full and people keep putting more on it, I end up feeling disrespected, so I am just checking it out here. Are you feeling disrespected when this happens to you?”

Where do you think this will take the conversation? Each example I have shown paraphrases back a different part of the original rant. Do you see that each time we created a different outcome? Practicing powerful listening creates trust and helps people to break through stuck conversations.

Here is a real-world example of a married couple who came to see me for therapy. He was very successful, in high demand and worked long hours. She was ten years younger than he and took care of the house as well as a menagerie of pets. They came in to see me because communication between them had broken down.

During one of the sessions the wife seemed deep in thought, and I asked what she was feeling. She said, “It feels to me like he’s having an a air.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than he exploded. “I can’t believe you think that! This is stupid. I work from home, out back in the garage. You can always see my car, because I’m always there.”

I interrupted and asked him to practice the listening skills that I’d just outlined. It took a while before he could even attempt it. It was very di cult for him to repeat something that felt like an accusation. To him, it was so outrageous that he didn’t want to give it any credence by speaking it.

Nonetheless I asked him to repeat the sentence back just the way he’d heard it. He clenched his fists. His jaw was tight. Through clenched teeth he said, “You are telling me I’m cheating on you.”

She looked at him directly and said, “ That is not what I said. I said it feels like you’re having an affair. And it does. You’re married to your work. Your work is your mistress. She gets the best of you, and I get the dregs that you bring home at night.”

There was a long, pregnant silence. Finally the husband spoke up and asked, “You mean you don’t think I’m having an a air?”

She replied: “How could I? You’re always home!”

When he learned that he could understand his wife and yet not agree with her, their relationship took a turn for the better.

This is an excerpt from Chris Balsley’s book, “Stop Controlling, Start Leading”

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