Career & Success

Communication Means Paying Attention: The Four Pillars of Active Listening

In this podcast episode, Julian Treasure shares how listening is where human understanding begins.

November 07, 2023

We should all be audience-centric in communication. But, as Julian Treasure contests, we need to take it one step further: “What is the listening I am speaking into?” is a question every speaker should ask themself.

“Every human being’s listening is unique… we listen through a set of filters, and those filters develop as we grow and mature in life and we have experiences. Knowing where the person is coming from, you’ll be able to sense their listening.”

Treasure, an expert on speaking and sound, also advises, “if you want to speak powerfully, develop a breathing practice. And that can be as simple as conscious breathing, which is breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Treasure and host Matt Abrahams explore the power of breath, the steps to show we’re listening, and how framing speech as a gift can better serve our audience.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The best way to be heard is to first listen. My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am really excited to speak with Julian Treasure. Julian is an expert on listening, speaking, and sound. He has presented five Ted talks that have been viewed over 100 million times. He is a speaker, coach, and author of How to Be Heard, Secrets of Powerful Speaking and Listening. Julian, thanks for being here.

Julian Treasure: Well, thank you for having me.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. I have to admit that I’m a bit of a fanboy for your content. I’ve used your talks in my classes for years and I look forward to our conversation. Shall we get started?

Julian Treasure: Please.

Matt Abrahams: Alright. Over the course of our many episodes, the importance and value of listening in our personal and professional lives has been mentioned time and time again. Can you share why listening is so important and can you distinguish among different types of listening, like what you term partial and conscious listening?

Julian Treasure: Well, listening is crucial because conscious listening always creates understanding, and I don’t think I’d have to persuade many people listening to this of the importance of understanding in the world today. And indeed the importance of listening. Never have we needed it more than we do. And the absence of listening, the absence of conscious listening tends to put us on a slippery slope, which is enormously accelerated, I think, by the current technology that surrounds us. So you see more and more people descending into silos of entrenched opinion and not listening in a way that’s actually going to create new ideas or challenge their opinions. Barack Obama said a good thing in his acceptance speech. He said, I will listen to you, especially when we disagree, and I think that’s quite an important attitude to have in the world, but we don’t really very much these days.

So listening is the basis of all human understanding. It’s the basis of relationship. After all, what’s the most common complaint in relationships? He or she never listens to me. It’s the way we learn. It’s said in ancient Greece, used to erect a screen in front of the lecturer so that the students who he called a were not distracted by seeing the person speaking from the important business of learning, which of course is listening. So he considered vision to be very distracting from the real business of listening. Listening is how we can sell or persuade or enroll people as well. Of course, any great salesperson will tell you the most important part of a sales conversation is not the speaking, it’s the listening. Because how can you sell to somebody if you don’t understand exactly what their problem is and how you can solve it? So we’ve all had the experience of somebody battering us with sales stuff that really isn’t relevant at all, and that’s simply because they’re not good listeners. So in all sorts of areas of human life leadership as well, of course, it’s very difficult to lead people and inspire people and if you’re not listening to them, if you don’t understand them and understand what makes them tick. So it’s crucial at every level of human endeavor really, and particularly human relationships.

Matt Abrahams: You have made a very persuasive case for the importance of listening. It’s about understanding, connecting, influencing, and the ability for us to be successful. One of the skills that I make sure my students listen to when they watch your talks is the four step process you teach to be a more effective listener. You call it RASA.

Would you be willing to walk us through those four steps and perhaps even give examples about how we can implement them in our lives?

Julian Treasure: Yes, and RASA, again, actually that came in the talk on listening, but it straddles both sides of the communication. So it’s very much also about speaking. So rasa, the Sanskrit word for juice, as I discovered when I was creating this acronym, it stands for receive, appreciate, summarize, ask. So four steps, and it’s a very good way to be in a conversation if you bear it in mind and work these four steps. So receive means what we were talking about before, really paying attention to the person who’s speaking. Now in the western world, I mean this differs culturally, but in the western world it tends to be that the person speaking will glance around and from time to time glance back at the listener to make sure that they’re still listening, but they won’t maintain constant eye contact. You see people doing that on TV actually.

I mean that’s how it works. People stand roughly a foot apart, nose to nose talking to each other and looking at each other and it looks fine on tv. But if you try doing that in real life, it’s very intimidating and unnatural actually. So that tends to be when you’re speaking, you’re looking around thinking, maybe looking out, but having ideas, checking in. But the listener needs to be maintaining eye contact. We all know the feeling of speaking to somebody who is gazing out of the window or thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch or evidently distracted. Even worse, falling asleep if you are giving a talk or something like that. Looking interested is really helpful in a conversation. So that would be perhaps leaning slightly forward as opposed to lolling back, it would be definitely looking at the person who’s speaking your whole body. I mean there’s a lot of body language stuff here. Not having your feet pointing at the door, not having your body angled away from the person as if you’re trying to get ready to flee. So all of these little symbols and signs can indicate that you are with them or you’re not with them, and if you really switch on this receive, it makes the conversation far more powerful and it makes the other person feel more comfortable, which is particularly important if they’re not necessarily a practiced or powerful speaker. So that’s the R of receipt,

Matt Abrahams: And I’m just going to interrupt very quickly just to say you do a fantastic job as we’ve been doing this conversation, obviously people are listening only to us. But as I’m speaking, I notice you doing all of the things that you’ve mentioned and I find myself now trying to do what you’ve just mentioned as you speak. So you’re not only explaining it, but you’re practicing it. And I invite you to continue now please with the other three steps.

Julian Treasure: Well, thank you. And it has to be qualified in different environments with different contexts. I talk about speaking and listening, that circle happening in a context and there’s always a context. It might be terrible acoustics, we don’t have that right now, but in radio for example, I mean if we couldn’t see each other, then you have to be a little bit more careful. If there’s an interview, it’s very irritating. If the interview is constantly doing what I’m about to suggest we do now, which is appreciation. So the appreciate is the little noises that we make to oil conversation. Oh, really? Wow. That kind of thing, which you are not doing because it would be irritating for the people listening to this to have that constant interruption from you. And I wouldn’t do it to you either. So what we can do also is visual signals, and that’s little nods, bobs of the heads, raises of the eyebrows, smiles, all those kind of little visual signals that say, I’m listening, I’m with you.

That’s interesting and so forth. So again, the nonverbal side of this, the visual side of this is quite important. If you can see somebody, and if you can’t, you can’t. So that doesn’t matter. And in which case, I mean typically in a podcast, if I can’t see the person I’m talking to, then it’s a question of listening more intently and more carefully. Radio and podcasting doesn’t like dead air, so you can’t have great big silences, but equally you don’t want this kind of thing going on in that medium. So it is a question of context and thinking carefully. If you’re in a very noisy place for example, then you may need to really be more vociferous in your appreciation. So that’s the A rasa. The S is summarizing, and I want to form a society for preservation of the word so which is a sorely abused word now.

So is a way to summarize and shut doors as you go down the corridor of the conversation, you can shut doors behind you and lock things down. So what I understood you to say is this, is that right? Yeah. Okay, let’s move on. Or in a meeting, if you don’t have a so person in the meeting, it can be a very, very long meeting indeed. So what we’ve all agreed is this. Can we take it that that’s right? Yes. Okay, well let’s move on to the next item on the agenda. What is it they say about meetings? Places where you take minutes and waste hours, which can absolutely be the case if you don’t have a so person you can go round and round and round and say, so can we all just summarize what we believe in this so we can move on? It’s a very important word in a conversation. So that’s the word, and I did use it to mean therefore there. And then we have the A at the end, which is ask, and that’s questions. Ideally open-ended questions, why, what, where, which who? Those kind of questions which don’t permit the answer yes or no.

One thing actually I get asked a lot by people who perhaps feel it’s difficult for them to make themselves heard is how can I do that? How can I engage when people don’t listen to me? Well, asking questions in a conversation is a very good way of engaging people and making a connection. And particularly if I’m talking to somebody who’s going on about something, I know nothing at all about, I am thinking hard about how could I bridge this? But it’s a really good way of trying to build a bridge in the conversation and to offer something you do know something about or to take it onto territory you feel a bit more comfortable with. So that’s rasa, receive, appreciate, summarize, ask. It sounds complicated now that I’ve gone into it in a bit of detail, but it’s really simple and it’s a great thing just to practice with friends, family, colleagues, people at work, whoever it might be that you will find it makes a big difference in communication.

Matt Abrahams: So thank you very much. I purposely wanted to throw the so in there, I have found this over the years to be very helpful to me. It’s been very helpful to my students, this notion of receive, appreciate, summarize, and ask. I love the idea of having a so person not just in meetings but in life. And I think many of us can examine the situations we are in and determine if we need to be that person to help summarize.

And I just want to note for our listeners and to compliment you on the fact that you do a very nice job at the end of each of your answers, doing your own summary. And that’s something that I think many of us fail to do. We just rattle off all of our points hoping that our listeners can aggregate them in some way and make sense of them, but often, especially when speaking for a little bit summarizing for our audience, for our listener can be helpful. One of the most important lessons that has emerged from the many experts I’ve interviewed on this podcast is that we must be audience-centric in our communication.

Matt Abrahams: You have your own spin on this that I really, really like. You ask, what is the listening I am speaking into? Can you shed light on what you mean by this? And how can we adapt our communication depending on the type of listening that we expect?

Julian Treasure: Well, this comes from my observation that every human being’s listening is unique. It’s as unique as your fingerprints are. And the reason for that is that we listen through a set of filters and those filters develop as we grow and mature in life and we have experiences. So they start with things like the language we learn to speak the culture we are born into, which might be family, it might be tribe or group, it might be local, it might be city, it might be region, might be national, whatever it is, might be all of those things. There’s a culture we’re born into and these things shape our listening. And then you have the values, attitudes and beliefs that you gather along the way from parents, teachers, friends, role models. You pick some up, you discard others and the ones you’ve picked up will be the different from the ones I’ve picked up.

And then in any situation, we might have expectations, we might have intentions, we might have emotions going on, we might have assumptions about particularly what’s going on in other people’s heads, which is a big area, and those things change our listening. So I don’t think he likes me. Then you’re listening in a different way. So the emotional, I mean, do you listen in a different way if you’ve just had fabulous news from if you’ve just had some terrible news, of course you do. So people’s listening changes over time and listening changes from person to person. So it’s very important to ask that question, what’s the listening I’m speaking into? Because you are always speaking into somebody’s listening and that listening is unique to them. Now, whether it’s one person or a thousand, if you put a thousand people in a room, you get a kind of gestalt listening.

And it’s perfectly possible if you simply ask this question over and over again to yourself becomes a practice, then you become more and more sensitive to it. And it’s possible to sense the listening. I can’t give you any more formal scientific explanation than that, but I can tell you from my experience that when I walk on stage in a hall, be it Ted or 10,000 people or 50 people, or I’m talking to an individual, I’m thinking, what’s the listing I’m speaking into? And that makes me sensitive to it and it’ll change. That’s why anybody who’s a public speaker, it’s a very good idea to be there early and to make sure that you’ve understood what the audience has just experienced before you. And they might have a brilliant speaker who made them laugh and cry and so forth, oh wow, I’ve really got to raise my game here.

Or they might’ve had somebody who’s really pissed them off and they might be seething and very upset. So you need to know those things otherwise you’re walking on and you really don’t know what you are walking into. So sensing it, asking that question, what’s the listening I’m speaking into is how you hit the bullseye instead of missing the target altogether with your speaking. I’m talking here about what you choose to say and how you choose to say it as well. Pace, energy, the vocabulary you use and the topics you are going to cover and how you roll them out. All of those things are very different if you are talking to an audience of septuagenarians, as opposed to an audience of kids, or an audience perhaps who don’t speak your language very well and they’re having to translate simultaneously. I’ve seen people in that situation go on stage and rattle off very fast English and the people in the audience are just looking, what is it? I can’t keep up.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Julian Treasure: So it’s very important to ask that question. What’s the listening I’m speaking into?

Matt Abrahams: I love the perspective change that that question requires. It forces us to really think about what we’re bringing to the audience and how we can help them digest what it is we’re saying. Too often we come in with the approach that it’s all about what I want to say. It’s really what your audience needs to hear. And by asking yourself about the listening you are speaking into, it really has us focus on that. And I appreciate that very much and thank you for sharing.

Julian Treasure: Well, of course it’s never about you, is it? And that’s one of the most important things to understand as a speaker. It’s not about me, it’s about the gift I’m giving to those people. And that’s where the four foundations that I talk about come in and so forth of powerful speaking. So it’s giving them a gift. And the more you are involved in that and what’s happening, it’s getting the ball over the net. Does it get received? Because if not, your wasting your time and theirs.

Matt Abrahams: I love that analogy of a gift because many people have a great fear of speaking in front of others, and a lot of that has to do with our self-focus. And when we remind ourselves that we have value to bring: a gift to give, it can change our own internal assessment of our confidence and anxiety. And I appreciate that.

In addition to listening, you focus a lot on speaking, and in particular, you give guidance on how to nurture and hone our voice. Can you give us a few examples of things that we can do with our voice and activities that we can practice so we can tune our voice to maximally be listened to?

Julian Treasure: Well, a couple of things I would suggest. First of all, breathing. Now in most people’s lives, unless you are a very strong on exercise for breathing, tends to be something we do very little of. We breathe in a very shallow fashion most of the time, and it’s not a conscious pursuit. Now, that’s not the case for everybody. There are people who’ve got breathing practices. There’s yoga which focuses entirely on breathing even, and all yoga uses breathing. But if the people listening to this haven’t a breathing practice, that would be a strong recommendation of mine. If you want to speak powerfully, develop a breathing practice. And that can be as simple as conscious breathing, which is breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. So in through the nose is silent, out through the mouth as if you’re whistling and count it so that you start to extend the length of time that you can breathe in for and the length of time you breathe out for.

And just take that on as a practice. You don’t have to do it all the time, but just a few times a day. If you spent five minutes, 10 minutes doing this, you start to become more acquainted with your lungs. You become conscious of what’s going on there because your voice is just breath. Also, breath is very important if you ever feel nervous because when you come on stage and your voice is a little bit like that, then a big deep breath is the thing that will settle your voice right down. So it’s a powerful tool as well in stress situations, but it’s also very important to be able to breathe effectively. And that’s without getting into the technicalities of diaphragm control and all that stuff that singers know a great deal about. So that’s the first thing I’d say in terms of improving anybody’s voice is to get to know your breathing.

And then I think the other thing would be to take on some of the tools in the vocal toolbox that I talk about, which may be prosody or prosody, intonation being a big part of that, or it might be volume or it might be pacing and to start to play with them and extend your range. Now that requires perhaps a quiet place to practice where you’re not going to bother other people. I used to do seminar work with groups of people. I’ve had people in those seminars going, I’m shouting that’s as loud as I can go. No, really that’s not true, that’s your perception. But we can all extend our range in terms of how loud we can go and how quiet we can go. It’s just get a book, a novel, whatever it might be, and start to read to yourself and extend your range.Really exaggerate the intonation. So you are really going mad about this kind of thing, which you wouldn’t necessarily do on stage, but it’s like training muscles. And if you do a lot of pullups or pushups or barbell things or whatever it might be, your muscles get stronger and you are more capable to lift something when you need to. And that’s exactly what it’s like. Again, with pace, being able to slow right down when you need to, perhaps that’s the listening that I’m speaking into, but also being able to go faster and faster when you need to. And that is crucial for avoiding monotony as is changing the tone. Monotone, of course, is where the word monotony comes from. Boredom comes from somebody who’s got very little infection or intonation, then just speaks on one tone the whole time. Well, if that’s you work at it. Practicing, extending your range with all these things and being able to stop, those three words: extend your range is my strongest hint to anybody who wants to become a more powerful speaker.

Matt Abrahams: Many, many very practical bits of advice. And thank you. When I look at this kind of work, I remind people that our brains are wired for variety, for change. When things become stagnant, we stop paying attention to them in the same way. And your points all lead us to have variation in variety. One of the things I encourage the students I teach to do is to take children’s poetry or children’s books, which are often meant to be read in a very exaggerated way, to do exactly what you’re talking about, to extend that range and to build what I call vocal stamina, the ability to support your voice for long periods of time in those exercises you reviewed for us are very helpful ways. So thank you. Many of us focus so much on our content. We don’t think about how to use our voice well to deliver that content and the tips you gave can help us to do that. So Julian, before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Julian Treasure: I am.

Matt Abrahams: If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received in a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Julian Treasure: Ask what’s the listening?

Matt Abrahams: Yes, yes.

Julian Treasure: Simply that is so crucial, and it’s the thing that’s so many people overlook to do because it all becomes about them. It becomes about the sender, and the receiver is the person that matters always. Whether it’s one person or 10,000, it doesn’t matter. So ask what’s the listing is absolutely the most important thing. I would put that in huge letters across the slide,

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, and certainly not a surprising answer yet. A very important one. Question number two, and I’ll be very curious to get your answer to this. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Julian Treasure: I had the great pleasure of meeting Ken Robinson at a lunch break at Ted in Vancouver some years ago. And his Ted talk is number one for a reason. When you see him live, he’s a master. I’ve seen a lot of great talkers. I was in the room for Brian Stevensons, amazing talk, Brene Brown, Susan Cain. I’ve seen a lots of people who’ve been very, very good, and I’m in awe of the people who don’t need notes and can just rattle things off from memory. But I think Ken, because he combines humor, often very self-effacing humor and storytelling in such a majestic way. I mean, he does it naturally. Ken would be sadly missed now, but a wonderful raconteur brilliant speaker and a wonderful communicator.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. And that is an amazing talk. Question number three, final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Julian Treasure: Content has to be number one. I asked this question to Chris Anderson actually when I interviewed him for my book, how to Be Heard, and I said to him, which one’s more important, content or delivery? And he said, well, it has to be content because if somebody is delivering earth shattering content in a boring way, I’ll stay with them. But if somebody is delivering absolute nonsense brilliantly, it’s just irritating.

And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. So content has to come first, and there’s a great deal in thinking about what it is that you are going to put across. The biggest question I think with content has got to be, so what newspaper editors beat into their drum, into their trainee journalists, and you have to have the first paragraph should say everything, and it has to say, why would you want to read the rest of this? So why is the reader going to be interested? Why is the listener going to be interested? What’s in it for them? So content first, then delivery. Yes. I mean, thinking about the vocal toolbox, all the amazing tools that we’ve got, I mean, the human voice is an extraordinary thing, and most people take it as a given. This is the voice I’ve been given. No, obviously there are physiological aspects to this.

Some people have got deeper voices, others don’t. We are different shapes, we have different vocal chords, different resonating chambers, but you can do so much with whatever you’ve been given to extend it. And when I hear any great, great, amazing singer, I just think, my goodness, what the human voice can do. And I’ve done quite a bit of training, but I’m not scratching the surface of it. So content first and then delivery. And then the third thing I would say is taken from my four foundations of powerful speaking hail, which is honesty, authenticity, integrity. And it’d be the fourth one of those, which is love. That is to say, wishing people well. And that comes back to giving the gift. So if you’re actually wishing somebody well and giving them a gift of something, they’re much more likely to receive it and appreciate it. Then if you are all about how important you are and standing on your hill above them and bestowing pearls of wisdom down to the swine below, and that’s not going to go down so well. So yes, I think content delivery and love would be my three ingredients.

Matt Abrahams: Powerful, content, delivery and love. So Julian, thank you so much for your time today. It was fantastic to speak with you. You certainly didn’t disappoint. You provided wonderful information, insight, and specific practical and tactical tools that we can use. Thank you for your time. I encourage everybody to listen to your TED Talks and to get your book, how to Be Heard, secrets of Powerful Speaking and listening. Thank you very much.

Julian Treasure: Well, thanks for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for listening to another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. To gain more insights and information, please follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram. You can also help us spread the word by rating and reviewing our show on Apple or Spotify. You can find transcripts for all of our episodes via the link in the show notes and on the Stanford GSB website. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, Podium Podcast, and me, Matt Abrahams.

If you liked our topic today, we have more interviews that dive deeply into listening our episode. Listen, Listen, Listen: How to Build Deep Connections from earlier this spring shares tips on being a skilled conversationalist. And in April of last year, I sat down with one of my co-teachers for an episode. We called, Are You Listening? How to Stay Open and Curious to Other People’s Ideas. In it, Kristen Hansen and I talk about the importance of really hearing where others are coming from. Another you might enjoy is Forgiveness, How the Right Communication Repairs Relationships. This episode features Fred Luskin and we look at research showing how forgiveness affects our psychological, relational, and physical health. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts.

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