Listen up | An evidence-based activity

listening skills.jpg

A couple of months ago, I was doing a classroom observation as part of an audit and found myself in a session on listening skills. At one point, the trainer said something to the extent of “to show the customer you are listening actively, nod your head vigorously and use verbal nods, okay?” To *show* the customer you are listening?!  This phrasing and the inane suggestion that followed really troubled me, particularly because I think I too am guilty of handing out prescriptions like these about listening.

What behaviours actually constitute effective listening? This evidence-based activity explores the results of a study done by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman into listening, summarized in this HBR article. While the context of the research and the context I envisioned for this activity both relate to business, I believe it could  also be used in teacher or mentor training situations.


  • Explore perceptions of effective and poor listening and contrast these with the results of research.


  • None but you might want to project key insights from the article on a slide or distribute the article as handouts. Alternatively, you could share the URL of the article URL of the article in a QR code and ask participants to access it on their phones.


  • Divide participants into pairs.
  • Ask participants to take turns talking about how the week’s been so far at work while their partner listens. Each partner should speak for a couple of minutes.
  • Draw a 1-10 scale on the whiteboard.
  • When participants finish talking, have them secretly rate each other on a scale of 1 to 10 on listening where 10 means that the partner listened to them really effectively. They should draw and mark up the scale in their notebook. They should then evaluate themselves on the same scale. Ask participants to think about the ‘why’ behind their scores.
  • Partners should now share their scores with each other and explain for example why they might have evaluated someone at a 7.
  • Seek whole class feedback and board behaviours participants seem to be associating with what they perceive to be effective or poor listening.


  • Present Zenger & Folkman’s research into listening behaviours among managers.
  • You might want to highlight the three attributes Zenger & Folkman suggests people perceive as good listening. Contrast these behaviours with the ones participants came up with:

Not talking when others are speaking

Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)

Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word (“So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is …”)

  • While these tips often form the basis of listening advice in management resources, Zenger & Folkman’s research identified very different conclusions:
    • Good listeners don’t silently nod. They engage the other person in a two-way active dialogue.
    • Good listeners make the other person felt supported and communicate their own belief in them creating an environment where things could be discussed openly.
    • Good listeners are cooperative, not competitive. They “may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”
    • Good listeners offer feedback or suggestions at opportune moments.
  • Ask participants to consider how frequently they practise these behaviours when they listen. What could be the benefits? What might be the challenges in using these strategies?

Action planning 

  • Time permitting, you could ask participants to review the six levels of listening listed in the concluding section of the article and evaluate at which level they generally listen with different audiences (direct reports, senior stakeholders & leaders, reporting managers, customers etc.)
  • Ask them to discuss what it would take for them to get to a higher level.


Image attribution: I listen by Olaf Meyer | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


3 thoughts on “Listen up | An evidence-based activity

  1. Pingback: Immersivities, the Motherload of Original Classroom Activities | The ESL Review

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