Listening, mentoring, storytelling

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 26, 2010
Filed in Business storytelling

I’m sitting in a cafe thinking about what makes a great listener. I can see a few. They’re leaning forward, nodding, smiling, asking questions. You can tell they want to be there and that they care about the person they are listening to. They’re not glancing at their watch, their phones and there’re no computer screens to distract them. They take turns telling their stories and sharing their thoughts but when they’re listening they’re engrossed in what the other person is saying and they’re not interrupting. It’s impossible for me to say for sure but I’m imagining that when they’re listening they’re not working out the next thing they’re going to say to impress their friend, to knock down their argument, to win the point. It’s a natural flow, improvisation style.

Most of know how to listen but why does it seem to evaporate in the workplace?

I suspect we’ve created workplace cultures that emphasise problem solving and getting the job done quickly and getting through the work. When someone asks a question people are clamouring to answer it and show that they are the fixer, the can-do person. Or they enter into interrogation mode to get the information so they can fix the problem.

And there are distractions galore. Phone beeping, computers beeping, colleagues bleating, all competing for our attention.

Yet there are many important times when deep listening is essential. One particular type of conversation which is top of mind for me at the moment is mentoring.

When someone you’re mentoring pops into your office and says, “I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this thing I’m grappling with,” then it’s time to go into deep listening mode. Can you be like the people in the cafe?

A couple of ideas.

First, remove distractions. Put your mobile out of site, put your phone on silent and if your computer screen is on a swivel arm move it so it’s also out of sight. Better still come around the to the other side of your desk and sit next to them with your distractions out of eye shot. I have one client who has to put his back to the glass wall of his office so he can’t see the stream of people who wander past and want to speak with him.

Second, ask good questions. You want them to open up and explore the issue. Hopefully they will get a new perspective and some possible options. So you need to listen carefully to ask good questions. As a general rule, ‘why’ questions will get to the bigger purpose. ‘How’ and ‘what’ questions will get the detail of how things work and what might be done. And my favourites, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions often get you stories.

Third, tell stories. You would think that listening is about just shutting up but it would be pretty weird to sit quietly and not say a peep. So to avoid just solving their problem, a strong urge for Type A’s, recount some of your experiences to get them thinking of what’s possible without telling them what to do.

Fourth, show that you are listening. How you look, how you respond, what you say, all indicate whether you really care and are listening. I’m not a big fan of summarising everything someone says in the form “so what I’m hearing you say is …” I reckon that’s distracting and merely a rote response. A better way is to try and predict a consequence of what they are saying and test it. “Wow, that must have been hard to take?” This way you are adding to the conversation. Body language is the other way to show you’re listening. You know what to do. I find it fascinating to watch body language in our workshops. When we are sharing opinions people lean back and have that “prove it to me” look on their faces, but when are sharing stories everyone leans forward.

I’d love to know more about how to help people be better listeners. Any thoughts would be welcomed. One great source on the web is my friend Jill Chivers who has a business called I’m Listening. She has a video-based program you can take and learn to be a better listener. Note to self: must go on it.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Paul Slater says:

    Thanks for this great post on listening. Yes, people do seem to have a work and non-work mode when it come to having such conversations and we all need reminders like your four points every now and again. As you say, when someone comes along and asks for your views on something you are really getting into mentoring but few people appreciate this and many can deliver their own solution to that other person’s problem.
    Glad to have discovered your blog and tweets and looking forward to more of the same.
    Kind regards

  2. Mark Schenk says:

    This 3 minute clip from Tom Peters makes a great point about listening. And about 18 second managers…18 seconds being the average time before a manager interupts a staff member explaining something. Scary!!!

  3. Paul Cooper says:

    Shawn – these are great tips. I’d add a further one for being a good listener – you really have to CARE. If you can bring your empathic emotion to the fore and care about the person/topic, then I have found that the listening becomes completely natural and is authentic. So how do you care if you feel you actually don’t initially? I recall an old boss (of us both) who used to encourage us all to “find something about the person you will like” Sage advice – it really does work and has helped me many times. Cheers.

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