Skip to main content
Commsy creative stuff straight to your inbox


Lend me your ear: six ways to supercharge your listening

< Blog home

Lend me your ear: six ways to supercharge your listening

Let’s take a straw poll. What do you think is the most important skill for communicators?

Storytelling? Planning? Business understanding?

To be good at what we do, we need to be skilled in many different areas. But there’s one skill we often take for granted.

Listening is a fundamental part of our role, but how many of us consciously develop our listening skills?

The benefits of listening go far beyond simply gathering information or understanding someone’s point of view.

Listening allows us to uncover the powerful stories in our organisations. Those great examples of customer service, living the values or collaborating across teams. Stories like these often lie undiscovered. But through listening we can tease them out and give them new life by bringing them to a wider audience.

We can also nurture creativity. At Apple’s memorial celebration of Steve Jobs, designer Jonny Ive explained how he loved the way Jobs listened so intently. Jobs, he said, understood better than anyone that “while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely-formed thoughts. So easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily squished.”

What’s more, the very act of listening validates us as people. It creates trust and builds strong relationships. Medical researchers in the United States have found the likelihood of doctors being sued is determined not by their medical skills, but how much time they spent with their patients. Just a few minutes longer, on average, was enough to make patients feel listened to and understood – rather than being ‘processed’.

Listening is part skill, part state of mind. So how can we do it better? Here are six ideas to put into practice.

Ditch your preconceived ideas

Preconceived notions are the first barrier to listening, according to CNN journalist Chris Cuomo.

“People often listen through filters,” he says in an interview with leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith. “They’re listening for something specific. They’re listening to be resistant to or have acceptance of something that’s said. Listening is about being open.”

So take a moment to identify your own expectations of your next conversation. Then put those expectations to one side while you listen.

Set yourself aside

Most of us wait our turn while listening, looking for an opportunity to jump in and contribute our views. But as radio host Celeste Headlee puts it in her excellent TEDx talk – it’s not about you.

“If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job, It’s not the same. It’s never the same. All experiences are individual.”

If you’re prone to contributing your opinions, try Marshall Goldsmith’s ‘feedforward’ approach. Ask for ideas, but refrain from replying with your views, or commenting on the validity of theirs. By fighting the urge to compose our own thoughts while someone else is speaking, we become better listeners.

Go with the flow

If you have several questions you want to cover, it’s tempting to stick to your script. But you may miss the really good stuff in the process. Better to go with the flow.

Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks found that most follow-up questions in business are actually topic-switching questions. But drilling further into one issue enables a much deeper understanding. Cuomo recommends simple follow-up questions such as: “Why?” “Such as?” “And then?” to keep your subject talking.

Think of it as a game of tennis. You respond to what your partner is saying like reacting to their shot – rather than waiting for your turn as you would in golf.

Assume everyone has a story to tell

Everyone has an interesting story inside them. Part of our role as communicators is to coax those stories out.

To do that, actively listen for something unexpected or surprising. A conflict, a struggle or a tale of overcoming the odds. If it makes you feel something, it’s likely to make a great story.

As the astronomer and inventor Galileo Galilei once said: “I’ve never met a man so ignorant I couldn’t learn something from him.”

Be aware of your hot buttons

Most of us know people who irritate us even before they start talking. And we often switch off as a result.

According to The Mind Gym Relationships, we all have ‘hot buttons’: phrases or views guaranteed to wind us up and take us out of listening mode.

If we take time to identify the things that annoy us, we can be ready to ignore them and carry on listening.

Stay focused

The more we focus on a conversation, the more useful it will be. One way to do this is to concentrate on collecting facts, Inspector Morse-style, rather than making judgements on what someone is saying.

But however hard we focus on listening, thoughts still have an annoying way of popping up to distract us. If you find yourself wondering whether you locked the front door this morning or have enough milk in the fridge, take a tip from meditation practice. Simply notice you’ve been distracted, then bring your attention back to the other person – without getting annoyed with yourself.

You can practise listening every day, so why not experiment? Avoid the temptation to give your own views or experiences. Probe for more details. Believe there’s a great story in everyone, waiting to be uncovered. We’ll not only improve our own communications – we’ll make someone else feel good too.

By Dave Wraith for Alive!

Find more listening tips in Supporting line managers: are you listening to me?


“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“We had the privilege to work with the Alive team. It was our first time to be involved in creating an animation for our patients within paediatrics. The team were approachable, friendly, creative and very accommodating. Your vision for what you want to create, is at all times acknowledged, appreciated and accommodated by the team. They worked effectively and with great passion towards our project and worked not only alongside health professionals but also our patients who really enjoyed the experience of working with the Alive team. It has given our team the confidence and inspiration to do further projects in the future. We highly recommend Alive and their exceptional team.”

DR ELENI ATHANASAKOS, Lead Paediatric Clinical Scientist — NHS Barts Health

“‘The short animation developed in co-production with clinicians and young people is outstanding! Informative, developmentally appropriate, vitally fun and engaging. We are really grateful for the expertise of the Alive with Ideas team for their innovative approach in building children’s health literacy.'”

Kath Evans — Director of Children’s Nursing at Barts Health

“Our mission was to update our brand visuals to better reflect our innovative and forward-thinking organisation. After receiving numerous pitches from different branding agencies, Alive stood out with their clear passion and understanding of our identity and goals. We thoroughly enjoyed working with the Alive Team to create an engaging new brand that we are immensely proud of.”

Lianne Springer — Communications and Engagement Lead

“Alive wowed us during the pitch process and they didn’t stop wowing us throughout the whole project. Every person we worked with at Alive were so friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they do. They have worked with us to really understand what we do and have created a new brand and website that really stands out from our competitors. Thank you!”

Louise Burnard, Head of Marketing and Communications UK — Be | Shaping the Future

“I think the team have done such a brilliant job, particularly with responding to our requests. It's one of the best mental health videos I've ever seen. Very proud to be associated with your exemplary work. Thank you so much.”

Dr Anna Batho — Clinical Psychologist – Critical Care, UCLH

“We have worked with Alan, Caroline and the wider Alive With Ideas team for many years. In that time, they have provided a dedicated service that is second to none. We appreciate their attention to detail and creative approach to bringing our brand, communications and stories to life. And would recommend them to anyone looking for creative communications support.”

Georgia Beech — Internal Communications Specialist, Ocado Group

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist —

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q
Alive logo