Learning to Listen

Header image: logo design is about 10% design skill, 30% design knowledge, and 60% listening to what your client is (and isn’t) telling you. Our logo design process for Redfish was a good example of giving your client more to talk about if they don’t really have a distinct idea in mind.


I am not a very good listener. I am guilty of forgetting what someone has just told me and realizing with shame that I wasn’t really paying attention to what they had to say. It’s a terrible habit and I don’t really know when it became so commonplace for me to mentally withdraw from conversation. I do, however, know the moment I realized that I had some very serious work to do on my listening skills.

Long story short, I was working on a large case-bound book for a local organization to celebrate a milestone. They kept giving me ideas for what they wanted to see and I kept dismissing them for what ‘I knew’ they really wanted. In the end, I finally opened my ears and we got the finished piece, which they adored, on-press just in time but that feeling of having absolutely no idea what to do about my client’s displeasure has stuck with me ever since.

Admittedly, all of us fall into the habit of being poor listeners from time to time – we’re all busy and we’re all consumed with our own thoughts. However, I have recently found listening to be one of the most valuable skills a person can learn. People who listen well not only do their jobs better but people tend to like them much more. And so, without further blabbering, I present my top three tips to help you improve your listening prowess.

Give up trying to be so interesting.

I don’t mean that you need to dull yourself down or diminish your accomplishments – far from it! When the moment is right, use your fascinating life and talents to add meaning and depth to the conversation but – and here’s the kicker – don’t start preparing your speech while your conversational partner is still talking.

This is a mistake that so many of us make – we get so focused on what we’re going to say next that we completely tune the other person out. Others often pick up on this and soon the conversation just becomes two (or more) people politely enduring the chatter of others until they get the opportunity to talk about themselves again.

To avoid this, I have been attempting to make myself approach conversation a little more organically. Instead of trying to prepare something interesting to say as the other person is speaking, I try to take away little bullet points from what they’re saying. Maybe their daughter just turned 5 years old or perhaps they just got an advanced degree – maybe they even just went shopping and really like the new shirt they’re wearing. It doesn’t have to be big, just meaningful.

Then, when it’s your turn to speak say something related to one of your bullet points to engage with your conversational partner or, if you don’t have anything to add, ask them to expand on something they’ve already said! This brings me to my next point –

Ask questions.

People love talking about themselves and I certainly don’t mean that at all as a negative attribute – it’s just a fact. And, this is also the greatest conversational tool out there.

Because everyone likes to talk about themselves, the people in their lives, their hobbies, woes, triumphs, and even ho-hum moments, you have endless conversational prompts that you can grab on to. Ask about their children, their spouse, their job, their pets – whatever! Asking questions not only shows your interest in the person but it also makes you stop thinking so much about your role in the conversation and focus more on the other party.

Make it fun.

As I’ve said before, even if you’re doing your best to listen well, we all experience lapses from time to time. I often feel my attention straying after about an hour of fierce networking so I employ my favorite listening method – I make it game.

In this game, I try to remember as much as possible about the person with the intent of bringing up those same points the next time I see them. If I’m in a large group setting, my goal is three facts (and a name!) from at least 15 people. In smaller settings, I increase the number of facts and tidbits I’d like to remember. This little game has given me a way to measure my listening skill overtime by how well I remember someone’s name and personal little details next time I meet them. I feel an immediate sense of satisfaction when I remember pieces of these people’s lives and they often feel better connected to me in return.

However you decide to enjoy listening, remember that it’s all just to help you get in the habit of doing it more naturally. Some of us (me) need more practice than others so giving yourself a little mental challenge can be a great way to encourage better communication.

As I get better, I am delighted by the way people respond when I remember things about their lives and express an interest in them and I feel like I am able to form a genuine connection much more quickly. Just a little bit of effort and focus can really make a difference in the way those around you perceive you and the way that you perceive yourself.

Good luck out there!

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