listening steve white blog
August 5, 2020

Are You All Ears or All Mouth?

Everyone likes to think they’re a good listener. The reality is that simply absorbing information or having the ability to repeat what you’ve heard isn’t always a sign of active listening.

Everyone likes to think they’re a good listener. The reality is that simply absorbing information or having the ability to repeat what you’ve heard isn’t always a sign of active listening. Great listeners actually “amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking,” say authors and consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.

Two of the six best listening practices Zenger and Folkman highlight actually have to do with asking questions. They say effective listeners seek to understand what the other person is saying and ask questions to clarify assumptions that may underscore what’s being said. I’m a believer in the connectivity between active listening and intentional questioning because I’ve experienced three key benefits firsthand. I’d love to share them with you. And, yes, I’m going to ask a question at the end:


You could say I’m a lifelong learner when it comes to understanding people. My thirst for knowing others helped me hone my listening skills as I got acquainted with someone. I once had the opportunity to interview Al Roker, weather forecaster for NBC’s TODAY show. 

A journalist by training, Roker couldn’t help but notice I didn’t have notes. I explained that I didn’t need notes because I was intently listening to his answers. Aggressive listening also meant I was engaged in a cooperative conversation and could ask better questions based on how he responded. Today, that same curiosity helps me ask attuned questions that bring out insightful answers.


Growing up in Georgia and later in Indiana, I wanted to know where I would fit in the world. This is true for anyone who may feel different or who is discovering their identity. For me, it continued in high school, college, and beyond. Asking questions was a helpful way to take the temperature of a new situation or group of people, process it, and act accordingly. 

We do this unconsciously in our lives and at work. For instance, a smart leader alters their approach to fit the situation so their behavior is relevant to the circumstances. Great leaders focus on the good things happening in any setting. Effective questioning also allows you to get on the same page with your team so you’re making decisions cohesively and with all the intel the group possesses.


This is the most critical type of inquiry. Don’t forget to ask yourself questions. A thoughtful leader is someone who has self-awareness or the ability to see how their approach affects people around them. For example, ask yourself if your behavior reflects your values. Another question might involve personal or team achievement: “How can we win at something today?” Think of a set of questions you can ask yourself regularly that will help you abide by what’s personally important to you and your team.

You might be familiar with the quote, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Tell me what you think about my reasons for listening actively and choosing your questions carefully. I’m curious if you agree or have a rationale of your own. Of course, I’m all ears.

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  1. Drew Leatham

    I have always thought of myself as a great listener because of my ability to listen to understand instead of listening to respond. I have never considered that asking more thoughtful questions would make me a better listener. I love the article you shared from HBR and will begin to ask more questions in my meetings tomorrow. I appreciate your thoughts and you sharing your leadership insights with others.

  2. Matt Dobilas

    Curiosity, Context, Clarity. They really are the foundation that all great interactions are built on. I know that when I was a new leader I was so eager to “help” that I was not actually listening I was just waiting for my time to talk and fix their problem.

    I also take this philosophy and use it on myself when I’m reflecting back on my day. It keeps me in the learning mindset and ensures my curiosity and desire to understand deeply is able to shine through even on the toughest of days.

  3. Josh Halbrook

    I was always taught to listen more than you speak. Echoed by my late grandfather all the time. Through my work experiences I have learned that this is a very valuable trait to have. There are times though that this trait is perceived as a weakness by others. For example, a team member may think “wow, what kind of leader or participant is this guy?” This is where asking thought provoking questions comes in to play. Questions that energize the conversation, not a question just for the sake of asking a question.

  4. Bill Erickson

    Thank you Steve for the links to Zenger and Folkman leadership resources. The six best listening practices are especially insightful in our current world environment, where so many conversations are emotionally charged. I personally can benefit in practicing these in my personal relationships as well as professional. I believe that if I focus on these steps my two way communication, understanding and real dialogue will vastly improve. Thank you as well for the link to your “win at something” quotes.

  5. Olga

    I have only met three people who meet that description. One of them is my mother.

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