Twelve Essential Qualities of Masterful Listening

“Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” — Rachel Naomi Remen

For many of us, what someone says and what we hear may be wildly divergent.

“When can we talk?” can easily translate to “Uh, oh. I’m in the doghouse.”

“You look fine,” can become “he hates what I’m wearing.”Tin can phone

Clearly, listening is not simply about hearing the words someone says.

Many of us listen through a filter that consists of assumptions and preconceptions. We think we already know what the other is going to say, what he or she thinks and feels. Sometimes we’re so busy formulating our response (or rebuttal) that we cease to be present.

Listening takes patience. When people speak they often need time to formulate their thoughts and clearly communicate them. Speaking is a process of uncovering, of connecting the dots. Good listening requires that the listener slow down and let the conversation unfold.

Listening takes effort. Good listening calls for focus, intention and willingness to engage. Though listening requires receptivity, it is in no way passive.

Listening also takes courage. When listening we may experience feelings and thoughts that are emotionally painful. We may feel angry or hurt or misunderstood. Listening and intimacy go hand in hand. Intimacy is about taking a risk to reveal oneself to another. Listening is about staying present when the other reveals, even when it’s challenging to do so.

If you’re ready to go from being an ordinary listener to a masterful one, keep the following principles in mind:

1. Give the speaker your undivided attention. No sneaking peeks at the ESPN sports update on your iPhone, no checking your texts.

2. Be ready to hear what the other is saying without judgment. A skillful listener shifts into neutral, listening for understanding, without defensiveness or resistance.

3. Know that listening can be anxiety provoking. Do your best to calm down.

4. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Think: What can I learn about my partner? Be open to discovery.Through magnifying glass

5. Don’t interrupt to share your response, opinion or reaction, even though it may seem crucial to do so. (Remember: listening is a receptive activity designed to increase understanding.)

6. Keep in mind that what’s being said is about the speaker, not about you. An effective communicator will avoid blaming, but like good listening, that skill takes time and effort to cultivate. Even if your partner is pointing the finger at you, do your best to remain non-reactive and curious.

7. Ask questions that help the speaker clarify, look more deeply and gain a broader understanding of what he or she is expressing. We all have a great deal to learn about ourselves and what’s important to us. A good listener can facilitate that learning. When pressure mounts, many people act as if they’re in court, asking questions that are more like a cross-examination, trying to corner the speaker rather than fully understand his or her message.  People often say things like, “Yesterday you said this and NOW you’re saying that!” or “Isn’t it true that… ” neither of which are evidence of open-minded listening. “Why not ask him where he was on the night of the murder?” I once said to a client who had shifted into full interrogation mode.

8. Restate what you’ve heard in as unbiased a way as possible. “What I’m hearing is… Is that correct?” The goal is to make sure that you’re fully understanding the message.

9. Do not offer unsolicited solutions or advice.

10. Resist the urge to argue, correct, or defend. Remember, truth comes in versions. Your job as a listener is to learn as much as you can about your partner’s version without needing to have it line up with yours.

11. Listen through the “noise” to hear what hurt or disappointment or struggle your partner is expressing. Do your best to respond to that.

12. Cultivate a willingness to be vulnerable. True listening is done more with your heart than with your ears.

When done masterfully, listening opens the door to deeper understanding and empathy. This, in turn, leads to a more caring and intimate relationship, where partners are willing to risk both knowing and being known.


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18 thoughts on “Twelve Essential Qualities of Masterful Listening

  1. It is humbling to read this and realize how infrequently I really listen well when I am triggered. We could have world peace if these principles could be followed.


  2. Winifred, this is excellent! Thanks you for this great compilation. I’m planning to use it also to stay present during my performance review.

    see you soon, Kerstin


  3. Pingback: The Language of Love – Part Two | It Goes On

  4. Reblogged this on More Than Words and commented:
    Okay, so recently I was having a conversation with my husband and it most certainly felt like we were speaking to totally different languages. Things were clearly being said but for some reason or another when the word left from the mouth and reached the ear things seemed to be mistranslated causing undue frustration to say the least. I’ve been praying a way to figure out how to handle such confusion and clear the line so to speak so that our conversation and message can get through clear and then we can experience fruitful dialogue and resolutions. So today it just so happen that I was going through Winifred Reilly’s post on her blog Speaking of marriage and came across a post called the Twelve Essential Qualities of Masterful Listening. I read it and BAM!! The flood lights came on. It was just the tools I needed to help me with the communication barrier I was facing. I consider myself a great listener but I can see by reading this article that it’s an art to it. So I’m going to take this wonderful article to heart and share it with my husband 😉 I thought it would be great to share with you all too. Enjoy and be sure to check out more of Winifred’s insightful post!


  5. Pingback: How to Listen Actively | Tips of DivorceTips of Divorce

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