Active Listening 101

Active Listening 101

Whenever we, The Good Doctors, are asked for a piece of advice on how to be a stronger leader, we respond with ‘be a stronger listener’. Listening well is easily the most undervalued and yet mandatory skill that any good leader (or, honestly, good humans!) has in their toolbox. There’s a few key skills we recommend cultivating, and while they are straight forward steps, each takes lots of practice.

First, make sure your body is physically communicating that you’re present in the conversation. Eye contact, leaning forward, etc. Your body is always communicating something – whether you intend it to or not – so we encourage you to be more conscious of it. Second, ask clarifying questions. If you are not sure you understand what the person is saying – ask! Finally, practice summarizing. So, if you and your conversation partner have been planning an event, let’s say, you should end that conversation with “here’s what I think we’ve committed to, let’s review.” Or if there’s been a painful statement made, something like “what I’m hearing is that you’re frustrated with the situation, is that correct?” Below is a quick scenario Dr. Donnelly has encountered.


Kate is Simon’s business partner. They’re friends as well, so she knows Simon just went through a terrible breakup and is not performing at work. She’s gracious to that, but they have a big client meeting she needs his head in the game for. The following is how the conversation actually happened. 

Kate: Simon, what’s going on with you?

Simon: *still typing at his computer* What do you mean, everything is fine.

Kate: *standing in the doorway, not really committing to the conversation* Everything is not fine. If we don’t land Big Box Corp, we’ll be way in the red.

Simon: *now turns to face Kate, who has her arms crossed* You think I don’t know that?

Kate: It doesn’t seem like you.

Simon: Are you saying I’m not pulling my weight?! We talked about this, Kate. I know I’m in my head and I’ll be out of it before the pitch.

Kate: You better be.

You can imagine how each one of them felt after that conversation. It wasn’t what we would call productive. Here’s how Dr. D counselled Kate to handle it in the future. 

Kate: *knocks on door* Simon, do you have a free minute to talk?

Simon: *still typing* Sure, come in.

Kate: *sits down, and moves chair so she can make direct eye contact with Simon.* I want to check in on the pitch for Big Box Co and make sure we’re on the same page with what we’re each supposed to do.

Simon: *stops typing* Of course we are.

Kate: I know these past few weeks have been hard and our communication hasn’t been as strong as it could be. Can we take the next five minutes just to double check? I want to make sure I’m supporting you the best that I can.

Simon: You’re right. We should go over it. I’ve been a mess and I’m so sorry. It’s just that … *goes into monologue about the breakup*

Kate: *nods sympathetically* I can hear how much pain you’re still in, Simon, and this whole thing is crap. I’m so sorry. But I need my partner right now to crush this pitch, so let’s go over what we’re each responsible for. If you need me to take something off your plate, this is the time to make that call. I’m happy to, but we can’t assume anything here.

At the end of the conversation, they review who is responsible for what. The pair each feel heard in their concerns – Kate for the pitch and Simon for his heart – and the focus on the pitch is done with the reality of business pragmatism. No one was accustatory, eye contact was made, body language communicated investment and clarity was achieved. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. 


Like we said at the top, this is not an easy thing. It’s simple, but not easy at all. We wish you patience in your practice, and if you’d like to chat about it, don’t hesitate to get in touch!


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