Listening: How a Conversation Works

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA CGMA, ABC

You have probably heard the aphorism: “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you should be listening twice as much as speaking.”

It, therefore, stands to reason that if you intend to listen, you should know how to manage a conversation. One of the quickest ways to create an obstacle to a two-way conversation is beginning a sentence with words that that will elicit only a “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” Some of these words include “Did,” “If,” “Could,” “Would,” “When,” “Will,” “Are,” “Can.” These types of close-ended question starters are certain to end any type of relationship you want to cultivate. They will not work if you seek to establish trust, seek knowledge, or build confidence, all vital, particularly if you are in a position of leadership.

Instead, create a relationship of sharing with an open-ended question starter such as “Describe,” “Why,” “Where,” “When,” “Tell,” and “How.”

Fundamentally, we can either asktell, or listen. Listening is the best way to create a sense of trust. Think of a professional interview where the search to fill a critical position is carefully conducted. I would guess that the interviewer is (or should be) asking the candidate questions, then leaning forward to carefully and sincerely listen. Nothing else should be going on. The interviewer is not “mentally reloading”; thinking of the next question on his or her list. Instead, the idea is to listen to context and perhaps offer a follow-up question to fill in a gap or shift the focus because of a statement made.

Once you have realized the value of asking an open-ended question, the other side of the equation is to actually and actively listen. Consider the person conducting the interview: Is there nodding (perhaps at the wrong moment), expression of solutions, uneasy body movement in a chair, looking down at an iPhone? These are all “tells,” to use a poker term; an obvious signal of someone tuning out. The candidate, if observant, will notice this. On the flip side, if the interviewer observes any one of these behaviors by the candidate, the interview should terminate immediately.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

                             —    Winston Churchill

I have advised young professionals seeking positions on how to handle a conversation, whether it is an introductory interview or a “listening tour”; that engaged listening, forming context, remembering key words—spoken and unspoken—will help later when they write down a synopsis of the conversation. By regularly doing this exercise, they will be able to see the similarities or differences in job requirements, culture, and attitudes. It may also provide an opportunity to ask follow-up questions at a later time. And the information summarized from each conversation will be accurate because of active and careful listening. Of course, asking only salient questions will help to achieve the desired outcome.

Do’s and Don’ts of Listening

The following are practical suggestions for active listening when involved in a conversation:

What you should do —

• Ask questions (but make sure the information has not already been provided)

• Minimize your speaking

• Remain open and engaged for ideas and opportunities

• Show understanding and paraphrase what was said

• Focus all your attention on the speaker

• Maintain eye contact

• Avoid distractions of any kind

• Manage your emotions

What you should not do —

• Multi-task during a conversation (put the iPhone down!)

• Think about what you want to say next (i.e., no “mental reloading”)

• Have any prejudgment or preconceived notions

• Finish someone’s thoughts

• Close your mind (and, therefore, your ability to listen) to new ideas or approaches

• Exhibit any sign of boredom or impatience

• Interrupt

• Become defensive

During this time of remote working and the use (or overuse) of Zoom, it is important that proper, effective, and courteous listening be used in any conversation. This advice also applies in our personal lives. Active and engaged listening builds respect, expands knowledge, and solidifies relationships.

About the Author

Steven Sacks is North America regional director with the Global Alliance Advisory Services, an organization that helps accounting and law alliances operate more efficiently and profitably. Steve can be reached at