Listening, fast and slow.

Last week I bumped into an article on LinkedIn which planted a seed in my head which has now germinated.  I kept the link (or so I thought) so I could refer to the article today, but find that I have kept the wrong article.  So I am going to have to summarise the key point and take it from there.

The subject was Interviewing Techniques, and the writer was proposing a way of getting people to open up and really talk meaningfully in answer to questions.  He described the technique as Slow Listening (which of course I immediately linked to Daniel Kahneman’s magnificent book “Thinking, fast and slow“.)  It’s a phrase I’ve heard before in the context of listening to music, but never before when exploring communication.

Slow Listening is simple.  When you have questions to ask (this could be an interview, a consultancy engagement, an enquiry, a business analysis session:  any time you want to get inside someone else’s head and ideally their heart too, for that matter), here’s what you do:

If you need to use your fingers, do it under the table

If you need to use your fingers, do it under the table

Do not respond, but instead count to five slowly in your head.

The person talking then will often fill the silence with what she really meant to say, or with things she had meant not to say.

Don’t do it after every question, otherwise it can feel like a police interview, but certainly on key points, instead of rushing ahead with your next question, shut up and count!  It will feel like agony, but I promise you the other person will feel it more than you (mainly because you initiated it and can take the brace position in advance!)

I found myself reflecting on when I might, in retrospect, have done the same myself, and was able to retrieve some good examples.  Like the day I asked someone in my team how he was finding the new job, and he gave a bland answer.  I didn’t say anything, and he went on to tell me that it was killing him, and unless we renegotiated he would have to leave, for the sake of his sanity, his marriage and his relationship with his children.  We renegotiated, and he stayed.

It’s a great negotiation technique, of course.  I used Slow Listening when buying some silk pyjamas for my daughter in Singapore.

“How much?”



“OK, $40.”


“OK, you drive a hard bargain, sir:  two for $40.”

The Slow Listener is a rare beast, I think.  People are so afraid of silence, and move at such a frenetic pace these days, it is a rare moment when there is a pause and no one says anything.  It seems strange to say that cultivating silence is a technique we need to develop, but there you are.

“That guy is so skillful – have you ever seen the way he doesn’t say anything?”

Here’s one to try with your (?small) team:  get into a circle, put your arms on each other’s shoulders or hold hands, or whatever your culture will allow, and be silent.  Hold it for as long as you feel able to.  You will learn heaps from tuning into the atmosphere.  The silence will be speaking eloquently to you all.  If it doesn’t, you’re not listening!

© ashumskiy –


About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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4 Responses to Listening, fast and slow.

  1. Angela says:

    Hi Michael, thanks for this article! I’ve found this technique to be especially useful with working with particular types of people, such as introverts (who need a little extra thinking time), Asian cultures (who sometimes almost need permission / to know the speaker has finished his/her point) and non-native English speakers (who may need extra time to translate into a second language) 🙂


  2. spencer says:

    does it also help if you slow down asking yourself questions – the internal dialogue? also, we need to be careful in this World of conf calls and remote coms, others will naturally assume we have just been cut off! 😉

    great article as always, thanks Mike


    • Thanks Spencer. Yes, turning off the internal dialogue is much harder to do, but it certainly helps you to focus on what is being said. But what do we do about the conf call, where as you say people will think your silence means you’ve lost your internet connection!? Maybe this technique is best used face to face, or on a one to one call. No easy answers, I’m afraid!


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