Opening Reflections

Take a Moment:

  • How effective do you think you are as a listener?
    • Rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10 where 1 is extremely poor and 10 is extremely good.
    • Why do you rate yourself at that level?
    • List at least 3 reasons Would others agree with your self-assessment?
    • Why do you think that?


Take a Moment:

  •  It’s been said that

“Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.”
David Oxberg

    • Do you agree?
    • Why do you think that?


What is Responsible Listening?

In human communications we have observed we tend to think that it’s mostly about the effectiveness of speaker (or sender) of the message. The irony is that it’s as much, if not more about the listener.

We saw from Professor Wiio’s observations that there are many forces working against the likelihood of success when we try to communicate. However, it’s only the receiver of the message who is able to confirm that understanding has been achieved. So as we look at how the communications partners can take responsibility to assure understanding is achieved, we will start with Responsible Listening.

There are two strategic actions undertaken by the Responsible Listener and we will unpack these in this topic. As a Responsible Listener you will:

  • Accept responsibility for understanding what other people say no matter how poorly they communicate.
  • Prove to the other person that you have understood their total message.


This is radically different from normal attitudes to communications. It involves active listening skills but is far more than just using active listening techniques. It starts with the servant heart, which is concerned for the other person. It’s about enabling them to succeed in what they set out to communicate by taking steps to ensure that they do succeed. It doesn’t hide behind their failure but has as its goal, enabling them to be successful through a collaborative partnership.

Such an attitude can make an enormous difference in the quality of the relationship between the partners in this collaborative effort.

Being a Responsible Listener

There are a number of factors that we can address that will enable us to be Responsible Listeners they include:

  • Focus on the speaker
  • Avoid the barriers
  • Avoid distractions
  • Encourage the speaker
  • Close the loop
  • Be patient in reply


Recall the communication process we looked at earlier. Altogether these tips will help us improve our ability to understand what the speaker intended to convey in the first place. We’ll now look at each of these in turn.

Focus on the speaker

We are seeking to participate in a collaborative partnership aimed at achieving understanding. So, we need to focus on our partner in the joint effort; they must be the centre of our attention.

We need to use that spare thinking capacity of 600 words per minute to help and not hinder us.

Don’t react but pay attention?

We need to guard against the Ladder of Inference processes which give rise to our reaction.  They cause us to impose our own meaning on what was said and then being selective about what we choose to pay attention to.

We need be clear that we actually hear the words used by the speaker. So if we devote our capacity to listening instead of reacting we increase the likelihood that we will hear what is actually said.

Leave your reply until you reply.

We often begin composing our replies while the other person is still speaking. This is not a logical step because until they have finished we don’t have all the information we need in order to reply. It becomes easy for us to then focus on our own thoughts and give less attention to our counterpart than is necessary to hear all that they want to say. So it’s best to avoid composing our replies until we reply.

Listen with your eyes

Also we need to be certain that we picked up on the other 93% of the communication that is not in the words. Two thirds of that is body language which we pick up with our eyes. So not only do we need to focus our ear on the speaker we must make them the focus of our eyes, being aware of their changing posture and expressions. We won’t cover this further here but there are a number of good books and web sites that concern themselves with this subject.

We also need to pay attention to how their tone of voice and the way they stress words colours what they say. When they said “That’s nice” did the mean that something was good and pleasant of did they mean the exact opposite?

Avoid distractions and barriers

Focusing on the speaker, using our 600 word per minute processing capacity to actively listen to our counterpart and read their body language will go a long way to helping us avoid distractions and by-pass the barriers.

Avoiding the Listening Barriers

There is virtually an endless number of barriers and filters that prevent us hearing what is being said let alone getting to what the speaker really wanted to say. Let’s consider just a few of the obvious ones:

Heightened emotions

As we considered in Leading with Insight, self-awareness is a key attribute for anyone working in a collaborative partnership. The ability to monitor ourselves allows us to counter emotional responses and manage how we respond to people.

If the topic under discussion is emotionally sensitive, or we are in an emotionally heightened state, then it is very likely we will not be able to focus on the other person or hear what is actually being said. It may be we need to dial back our emotions or ask that we continue the dialogue at another time. If that is the case its best to make plans and not just leave things hanging.


If we think we know about the topic being discussed,  feel that we know more than our counterpart or hold strong opinions about the subject, then we may well think we don’t need to listen to them, because “we know it all”.

May be we, do but they may have an insight.

May be we don’t and they know something that is actually new to us.

If either is the case, then our servant-hearted concern for them should cause us to set aside our familiarity with the subject and listen anyway. It may turn out to be a significant opportunity for both or either of you. At the very least it will graciously demonstrate your interest in and concern for them, and that will pay dividends in your relationship and the level of trust that they have in you.

Fear of change

Change is a significant cause of fear in people and fear blocks one’s ability to hear what is being said.

Think back to the Amygdala Hijack we looked at in Leading with Insight. In that case the amygdala registers a threat and overwhelms the brain’s ability to think at all, let alone logically for a few seconds. But even in less severe situations, the fear of change can load the brain with emotional reaction and prevent the listener from hearing what is being said. This is a phenomena that also occurs with bad news.

As a listener perhaps the only steps available are to breathe deeply, seek calm and ask the speaker to help you understand. This requires the good relationships and trust we have discussed earlier in the programme, and it requires the speaker to exercise their servant heart to help. Then make an arrangement to meet with the speaker again to go through the issue once the emotion has subsided and, as the listener, you are able to process the message more rationally. Of course, for Christians in such situations we also have the resource of prayer and faith to help us, even if we only have opportunity for no more than a Nehemiah like arrow prayer (Nehemiah 2:4)

The wrong moment

There are all sorts of reason why the speaker might have chosen the wrong moment and they all mean that you cannot give the conversation the attention that it and the speaker deserve.

It may be that it’s the wrong moment because of the things we have just considered, it may be as simple as you don’t have time just then. If that is the case then, if possible, it’s better to make an arrangement to talk later than try to squeeze it in and fail to communicate.


Impatience with the speaker can be a significant block to hearing what is said. This can arise from factors such as the speaker providing insufficient or too much detail. It may be you’ve talked about this matter a number of times and they just don’t seem to get it, or any number of causes. In any event your impatience prevents you from hearing what is said.

If that is the case then you need to dial back in to Christ’s servant heart. Remember the woman with the discharge of blood in Mathew 9, Jesus had time for her despite already being on his way to raise a girl from the dead. Stop and give time to the other person. If you don’t have time just then graciously arrange to meet and go through the matter again.

Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions has the Ladder of Inference written all over it but it has an extra factor. Once we have arrived at a conclusion we will also stop listening. Why would we need to listen anymore? The matter is now dealt with in our own minds. Once we stop listening we stop hearing what the other is trying to say.

Because we jumped to a conclusion we have missed the steps of confirming our understanding, which may be wrong.

If we do jump to a conclusion, what we need to do is recognise it, step back and reengage with the speaker. We can do that by asking for instance: “Am I right in concluding that….?” If we are they will confirm our thoughts but if not, then they can help us understand and reach an appropriate conclusion.

Adopted positions

If we have an immovable opinion that we have chosen to adopt, and what the speaker has to say doesn’t fit, then we can dismiss them in our minds and pay no attention to them.

The first observation is that this is not a demonstration of a gracious Christ-centred servant heart that is interested in the other person. We still need to take time to engage with the speaker because if we are right and they are wrong, then we need to help them reorientate their thinking, otherwise they will not grow to achieve their potential. On the other hand we may be wrong. Then as Christ-centred servant leaders we must be gracious and humble enough to recognise that we benefit from the collective wisdom of the team, and we are still learning and growing.


There are many things that can distract us and many of those are specific to us, but if we work at being focussed on the speaker we will minimise the impact of distraction.

Take a Moment:

  • Reflect upon the things that distract you when you are in conversation with someone.
    • What are they?
    • What can you do to counter these distractions?


Encourage the Speaker

This may seem odd. Why should you encourage the speaker?

Take a Moment:

  • Have you ever spoken to someone you thought wasn’t listening to you?
    • How did that make you feel at the time?
    • How did you react?
  • What do you think you can do to encourage a person who is speaking to you.


Encouraging the speaker energises them. It helps them to feel engaged with you and that there is a point in continuing. It helps them be more interactive and more interesting, which in turn makes it easier for you to listen to them.

Much of our encouragement can be shared via our body language. Bear in mind, though, that in cross-cultural situations the “rules of body language” may well be very different. This is especially true when considering Western, Arabian, African, Latin and Far Eastern cultures. If you are working in cross-cultural situations then it is advisable to take time to investigate what constitutes appropriate body language – see the Bibliography.

Broadly speaking in western cultures there are three key things you can do to help the person speaking to you.

Make and maintain appropriate eye contact

Keeping appropriate levels of eye contact tells the speaker that you acknowledge them and are paying attention to what they are saying. It demonstrates interest in what they have to say. Consequently it is encouraging feedback to the speaker.

Continuous, unbroken eye contact can be threatening, which of course has a negative effect on the speaker. Because it can be threatening we tend to break and re-engage eye contact. So do not be afraid if that happens.

In Arabic cultures eye contact is less common and considered less appropriate, especially between sexes. Intense eye contact can show sincerity. In China and Japan eye contact is often considered inappropriate and subordinates do not make eye contact with superiors. In African and Latin American cultures it can be considered aggressive, confrontational and extremely disrespectful.

If you are in place where there are visual distractions you will continually look away and that may not be helpful. If that is the case then ask the speaker to pause for a moment because you are being distracted and perhaps ask to change location slightly so you can give them your full attention.

If you find looking at someone’s eyes disconcerting, then look at the bridge of their nose. They will think that you are looking into their eyes. Be aware too, that visual thinkers may break eye contact with you when they are thinking.

Confirm with positive body language

You can confirm your interest and understanding with positive body language. So nodding in affirmation and smiling for instance. Leaning slightly towards the speaker also conveys interest, leaning away the opposite.

Folding your arms indicates that you are switched off by the speaker so be relaxed and let your arms hang comfortably at your side.  If you are sitting then bringing hands together in your lap can convey openness and interest.

Again, recall that the above advice more often than not works in Western cultures but if you are working cross-culturally take time to learn what body language is and is not appropriate for that national culture.

Provide verbal confirmation

Verbal confirmation with positive expressions conveys interest and engagement, as does asking for clarification on things. However, you need to avoid continual interruptions which will make it difficult for the speaker.

Close the Loop

Closing the loop with the speaker is a crucial element of assuring understanding. It’s a process that listeners can use to confirm understanding for themselves and let the speaker know what they need to clarify for you.  The processes outlined are often called active listening.

Convey what you thought they said

Referred to as reflection, this is the process of repeating back what you think you have heard.

Remember the communication process. It starts with what the speaker wants to say which, when put into words may not be quite the same thing. You hear these words but by the time you have processed them they may mean something quite different to the original thought in the speaker’s head.

Paraphrasing what you think the speaker has said is helpful. It allows you to interpret the meaning and convey it back to the speaker in a different form. If you misunderstood, then paraphrasing will make that much clearer than simply repeating what was said to you. Paraphrasing also helps you be an active listener, that is, take in and understand and recall what has been said.

Reflection lets the speaker know how close you are to understanding what he wanted to say. He can then clarify any misunderstandings.

Summarise periodically

This is somewhat like reflection but is about summarising a collection of points that combine into some bigger idea. It allows you to share the conclusions you are drawing from what is said and it provides an opportunity for the speaker to confirm or correct your understanding.

Use questions

If the speaker’s message is unclear or confusing questions can be used to ask for clarification and to provide more detail.

    • The question may be broad such as: ”I didn’t understand that, please can you tell me in a different way?”
    • The question may be specific such as: “If such-and-such is the case then does it mean….?”
    • The question can ask for more detail: “Can you expand that point and give me more detail about …..  please?”

Questions also turn the engagement with the speaker from a monologue to dialogue, as both the listener and the speaker take responsibility to ensure that understanding has been achieved. The process is also an encouragement to the speaker and will help them feel that it is worthwhile to achieve understanding.

Be Patient in Reply

When it comes to replying be patient. One of the things that blocks our opportunity to understand is using our spare capacity to formulate our reply while the speaker is speaking.  Not only does this steal our ability to help ourselves understand, as we have been discussing, but most likely means that we have jumped to a conclusion, which is probably wrong.

Leave the reply for your reply.

If you have been engaging with speaker through reflection, paraphrasing, summarising and questioning, you will not forget what has been said and, because you will have a better understanding, you will be able to formulate a better reply.

It may also be that the best reply is a question along the lines of “If …. then …., is that correct?”

Formulating a reply while the speaker is speaking often means that the speaker and listener are in disagreement but that disagreement may have arisen through misunderstanding. So being certain that understanding has been achieved is the best strategy for generating a sensible reply.

Because understanding is the goal it is important that you be candid and open in your reply. Remember that you are in a partnership that jointly owns the dialogue. Respectful honesty is important in ensuring understanding has been achieved and that you, the listener, can correctly take whatever action is necessary.

Results and Benefits

The result of Responsible Listening is that understanding is achieved. This underpins trust because both speaker and listener demonstrate that they can work together collaboratively and this enables them to be mutually effective. Then the individuals concerned are more able to achieve their full potential, which is the goal of the Christ-centred servant leader.


Take a Moment:

Using the Responsible Listening Questionnaire which you can find in Appendix B of the Student Notes download, prayerfully perform a self-assessment on your responsible listening skills. Then if you feel able, ask some other people that you trust for their assessment too (see Appendix B for a questionnaire).  Average their scores.

  • Is there a difference between your self-assessment and the assessment of others?
  • What does the difference tell you?
  • What actions could you take to improve each element by 2 points or achieve a minimum of 7 on each element?
  • Now work out an action plan to practice those improvement steps over the next 6 to 12 weeks and then re-run the assessment.