Now Hear This

Are you having a hard time being heard at work? Do you find yourself nagging your spouse and children about the same old-same old with few or no results? According to Michael P. Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (The Guilford Press; $16.95), the key to being heard is less talking and more listening.

“Most of us think we’re better listeners than we are,” says Nichols, a professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Listen with the intent to understand what the other person is saying rather than to respond. This is particularly important if you’re interested in getting the other person to see your point of view.”

“There’s a difference between listening and hearing,” says Madelyn Burley-Allen, author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill: A Self-Teaching Guide (John Wiley & Sons; $18.95) and founder of Dynamics of Human Behavior ( According to Burley-Allen, there are three levels of listening. Level three, the lowest, is where people tend to tune in and out of a conversation and are more focused on forming rebuttals and getting their own point across.

Sophfronia Scott, a Connecticut-based life coach and author, recalls working with a client we’ll call Vanessa. Vanessa had a very demanding boss. When her boss asked her to set up a meeting with a team of consultants to help drum up new ideas, Vanessa interpreted the meeting as proof that she was being judged inadequate and purposely neglected to set up the meeting. This caused her boss to become irate. Vanessa was so intent on proving to her boss that she was creative and capable that she resisted her boss’s attempts to make her job easier. Scott ultimately helped Vanessa realize her responsibility in the situation — she had ignored her boss’ instructions by failing to listen to, and correctly interpret, what she had been asked to do. Scott helped Vanessa acknowledge that listening is a two-way street.

Nichols coached a client who also experienced a similar dilemma with his supervisor, but with different results. Nichols’ client was a mid-level manager whose supervisor would invite him to meetings to give reports. After each report, the supervisor would argue about it with Nichols’ client and essentially override him. “I told my client that his boss’ agenda was to make sure his own ideas and opinions were heard, rather than just accept what was being presented,” says Nichols. “I suggested that when he presented his reports, his first agenda should be to draw his boss out, to get his boss to express his point of view.” Nichols surmised that once his client’s supervisor felt he was being heard, his client would be able to present his reports without interruption or attack. “It worked beautifully,” says Nichols.

Level two listening occurs when you are listening to words but not acknowledging the speaker’s intent. “At level two, the speaker may be lulled into a false sense of being listened to and understood,” says Burley-Allen. Level two