image of a coffee cupYesterday, a valued colleague described a fascinating professional interaction and used the phrase, “listening with intent.” While I imagine this is something on the level of “seek first to understand,” the phrasing works for me. It connotes a significant and deep personal investment in focusing on another human…something lacking from most of our interchanges in life and in the workplace.

A quick search on the topic uncovered a number of resources…mostly linking the phrase to the process of “active listening.” Listening with intent goes beyond the acts of repeating words and asking clarifying questions, techniques commonly associated with active listening.

Listening with intent isn’t a technique, it’s a personal value backed by behaviors that cause us to shift from the movie about ourselves running in our own minds to focusing on the movie or picture being created by another.

Stephen Covey describes this concept very eloquently and effectively in 7 Habits…and it is summarized wonderfully in this piece at Fast Company: “Using Empathic Listening to Collaborate.”

Instead of our usual listening “with intent to reply to control, to manipulate,it (Empathic Listening) means getting “inside of another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.” 

Rhetorical question: How many of us listen that hard to our colleagues? Our customers? Our loved ones? 

Frankly, the act of listening with intent…or employing Covey’s empathic listening, sounds exhausting and painstaking. I suspect that’s why we spend so much time not doing this.  Nonetheless, there are some good reasons to invest the mental sweat required to listen with intent.

  • Great negotiators understand and apply empathic listening masterfully. They strive to understand issues, goals and aspirations, which are often hiding out of sight behind positions.
  • The best salespeople I’ve been privileged to work with are masters. The worst sell on features and functions, the great ones sell by sitting down in our theaters and seeing the world and challenges and needs from our frame of reference.
  • Great strategists listen to customers and markets with intent. They look for emerging patterns and strive to make sense of those patterns and then they adapt their firms and products and services to fit the patterns and frames of groups of customers.
  • The best medical professionals employ Empathic Listening with their patients, which makes a remarkable difference in how we cope with difficult diagnoses.
  • And yes, the best leaders strive to tune-in to their employees, particularly as it relates to professional development.

Covey  ties this concept off beautifully with: “When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Help your family members, colleagues, employees, customers and even negotiating opponents breathe a little easier. Listen with intent. Listen with empathy (not sympathy) and provide a bit of psychological air. Most of us…myself included, don’t this very well or very often. It’s time to start.

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Art Petty is a Chicago-based management consultant focusing on strategy and leadership development. Art regularly speaks on innovation in management and leadership, and his work is reflected in two books, including the recent, Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development. (download a free excerpt at Art’s facebook page.)

Art publishes regularly at The Management Excellence blog at

Prior to his solo career, Art spent 20+ years leading marketing sales and business units in systems and software organizations around the globe. You can follow Art on twitter: @artpetty and he can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]