Listening — A Key to Interpersonal Competence

Today is Friday, so this post is on interpersonal competence.

All interpersonally competent people are great listeners.  However, listening is not as easy as it seems.  Therefore, here are some of my thoughts on listening, and great listeners.

When I think of great listeners, a few people come to mind.  However, Charlie Rose is one of the best listeners I know.  If you don’t know Charlie Rose, he hosts a late night talk show on PBS.  While David Letterman and Jay Leno have more interesting monologues (Charlie doesn’t do one), I’ll watch Charlie’s show any day of the week.  First of all, he always has interesting guests, from the world of politics, sports and show business, but then so do David and Jay. 

What sets Charlie Rose apart is his ability to listen.  The set is spare – a round wooden table with a black background.  He and his guest sit at the table and chat.  He has only one or two guests in an hour long program. 

One of the things that makes Charlie Rose such a good listener is his ability to interact well with all types of guests.  I remember one show on which he had an NBA star on for the first half hour, and a national politician discussing US foreign policy for the second.  During the first half hour, you would have thought that he played in the NBA, and during the second, you would have thought that he worked in the State Department.  While I’m sure he has a crack research staff to help him, Charlie Rose is able to really draw out his guests because he listens to them.  He comes prepared, but then he listens to what his guest say and then asks the type of questions that help the viewing audience get an intimate feel for the person being interviewed.

Burke is a fictional private eye created by Andrew Vachss.  He makes his living by gathering information.  Listening is one of his strong suits.

  • “It’s not hard to get some people to talk; it’s listening that takes real skill.  You can’t just shift to record mode until you confirm the channel is open and the signal is strong.  Sometimes, they just need to tell you something important to them before they tell you anything important to you.  It’s like uncorking a bottle of wine and letting it breathe before you have a taste.”

Studs Terkel may be the best listener of all.  He has written 11 books, all oral histories.  I first became acquainted with studs in the mid 1970s when I read his book Working – a book in which ordinary people shared with him what they do all day, everyday.  His ability to listen and draw out his subjects came through loud and clear even on the printed page.  Studs has produced other oral histories on the Depression and World War II.  His latest book, published last year is called Hope Dies Last.  The Wall Street Journal says: “During his long running book program on WFMT (in Chicago), he became acknowledged by authors as one of the best interviewers they ever encountered.”  If you don’t know Studs Terkel, pick up one of his books, and you’ll see a great listener in action.  I recommend Working as a great place to start.

On the other hand, Sean Hannity, a political talk show host on Fox may be one of the worst listeners in the world.  Things seem to go bad right from the start in his interviews.  He has the annoying habit of asking a provocative question, and interrupting his guest after about 10 seconds of his or her response.  Not only does he interrupt, he tends to belittle his guests for their position.  He seems as if he is using his guests merely as a foil to advance his own thoughts.  You’ve probably met and worked with a few people like Sean.  With these people, it’s difficult to engage in any meaningful dialogue as they are more interested in telling you what they think, rather than hearing what you do.

Interpersonally competent people are a lot like Suds, Charlie and Burke.  They listen to the people around them.  They listen not just for the facts.  They listen for the emotions behind the facts.  They spend time getting to know people – as unique, individual human beings, not just interchangeable parts of the work process.  In my experience, when someone comes to you with a request or thought, the mere fact that you listened to and understood them is often more important than whether you agree with them.  All people like to feel that they are heard, it makes them feel good about themselves.  It builds their self esteem.

Listening is difficult, especially when we disagree with what a person is saying.  All too often we get caught up in forming our rebuttal instead of really concentrating on and trying to understand what a person is saying.  Interpersonally competent people listen the hardest when they hear something with which they don’t agree.  They know that these conversations have the most possibilities for them to learn something. 

There is a Native American saying “listen to the whispers, and you won’t have to hear the screams”.  Interpersonally competent people know this to be true.  They listen hard to people’s whispers, because they know that’s where they’ll find the important information.  By the time whispers become screams, it can be too late to do anything about them, and a relationship is in peril.

There is a side benefit to listening.  People who listen learn more than people who don’t.  Larry King, whose not a bad listener in his own right, has said, “I remind myself every morning that nothing I say this day will teach me anything.  So if I’m going to learn, I have to listen.”  Interpersonally competent people know that they can learn new skills and information by listening and, more importantly, build and nurture strong, mutually beneficial relationships with the people around them.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.