A Key to Effective Communication: Listen First

Ever wonder how to really help somebody who comes to you for advice? This story of a conversation I had with Sam, a long-time friend, illustrates an important key of skillful, effective communication.

Sam was telling me about his strained relationship with his brothers. “They keep me at a distance,” he said. “And when we do speak, they usually criticize me. I’ve tried to resolve this for many years and I don’t know what else to do.”

Sam then said, “Please help me come to peace with not having a close relationship with them.”

It is very tempting in a situation like this to respond with advice. After all, Sam not only asked for advice, he even explained exactly what kind of help he desired.

The first step of skillful communication, however, is ‘Listen First’. And one of the principles of ‘Listen First’ is that the full story does not always emerge in the first round. Especially when people and relationships (and therefore emotions) are involved, it is often only in the second and third round that key points emerge.

It is therefore important in such situations not only to Listen First but also to respond empathically. And that is the way I responded to Sam. I reflected back to him what I imagined his feelings, needs and experiences were, and I listened as he, in turn, responded.

At one point Sam said that he often offered to share activities with his siblings, but they always turned him down. This caught my attention, since people usually have underlying reasons for how they act. I asked Sam if there was a reason they are afraid to spend time with him.

Sam sighed and said that in his heart he has strong judgments about his siblings. He disagreed with certain decisions they made about how to raise their children. And while he rarely expressed these thoughts to them, the judgments were in his heart.

It was evident to me that this was the key to the story. Sam’s brothers sensed his negative thoughts about them, and were afraid of being criticized, and so they kept him at a distance.

As soon as Sam realized this, he knew the solution. He could have a close relationship with his siblings, provided he let go of his judgments and replaced them with respect and understanding.

I met Sam again some months later and he was beaming. His relationship with his siblings was better than ever. They had begun inviting him to spend time with them, and he told me how much he was enjoying it. I congratulated Sam and shared his joy.

This is a powerful illustration of how important ‘Listen First’ is to effective, skillful communication. Yes, Sam asked for advice, and he even had a clear idea of the advice he wanted. But it was ‘Listening First’ to Sam and responding empathically, and not rushing to offer advice, that led to the discovery of the key insight, the one that opened the way for Sam to remove the barrier that separated him from his brothers and reconnect with them.


  • When people share an issue with you, notice if you go into ‘listening mode’ or ‘advice mode’.
  • Especially when emotions are involved, practice empathic listening. Resist the temptation to give advice and feedback after the first round.
  • Notice what happens when you do that. Do different and deeper understandings emerge as you listen empathically?

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