The NCSL Blog


By Kevin Frazzini

For a lot of us, good communication means looking directly at the person we’re addressing and speaking with confidence. What matters most, we learned, is being clear and direct.

Samuel SolomonBut by focusing only on what you’re saying, chances are good that you’re not hearing. It’s one of several barriers to listening described by leadership coach Samuel Solomon during the workshop “Learning to Listen” at NCSL’s Legislative Summit. Solomon is a faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that specializes in executive education programs.

Other barriers to listening include:

  • Assuming that, because you’re a leader, you must be right.
  • The perception that silence equates to agreement.
  • External pressures, such as being in a hurry.
  • A lack of knowledge or understanding of what someone is saying.
  • Our individual makeup or personality characteristics, including a desire to be perceived as nice or funny or smart.
  • The challenge of virtual communications, including the difficulty of conveying tone or humor in an email.
  • Emotion, which, if it’s compassion, might move us to help another person or, if it’s anger, might prevent us from hearing his or her message.
  • Cultural differences.

During a short breakout session, the workshop participants came up with listening barriers of their own, including physical disability, such as a speech impediment, language differences and lack of interest in what another person is saying.

Those are a lot of barriers for any listener to overcome, and we can never eliminate them all. But, by becoming active listeners, we give ourselves a much better chance to understand what others want us to hear, Solomon said. Better listening means better communication, which can improve your ability to lead.

The five steps used by active listeners include:

Quiet your mind: Take a moment to think about your intention as a listener. Are there distractions nearby? What is your mood?

Pay attention: This is your end of the conversational bargain. Think of this as the cost, or “payment,” you make to the person you’re talking to.

Suspend judgment: Avoid coming up with your own solutions to another person’s situation while he or she is speaking. It’s another matter, of course, if someone asks for your opinion.

Pay attention to body language: Some 55 percent of what’s conveyed during typical communication is nonverbal, Solomon said. If you’re slouching, for example, some speakers will assume you’re not interested in what they’re saying.

Reflect, clarify, summarize, share: This is your opportunity to ask questions if you don’t understand what someone has said, or to restate what you think you know in your own words.

Solomon suggested that we think about how we listen to others. Do you primarily listen for facts, feelings or values, or some combination of them? He acknowledged that a legislator’s interactions with constituents can involve all those elements in one conversation.

“You folks have one of the most tricky types of jobs,” he said to what appeared to be universal agreement. Keep expectations reasonable by focusing on “what is possible, what is realistic and why.”

The Center for Creative Leadership has more on active listening and other skills that can help you tone your leadership muscles.

Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.