I’ve been on holiday, the first one in a couple of years, and as it winds to a close, I’ve been thinking about starting the New Year in the right spirit.  I’ve made the usual resolutions to get more exercise, eat right, live every moment fully, and avoid speeding tickets.  But what about a theme, an idea, a mantra for 2014?  Something serious to guide my efforts in the new year.

And it hit me somewhere in the recent cacophony of fireworks, champagne corks, congratulations and best wishes for 2014.  For me, this year is going to be the year of listening.

We all say we listen.  We think we listen to other people.  But all too often we’re merely waiting for our turn to speak.  We listen to the noisy ones, and miss the quiet ones.  We listen to the words, and miss the body language that tells a different story.  We listen for the main plot and miss the nuances.  We listen and only hear the same old complaints – and we miss the new urgency, or the new slant that warns us that things are not the same anymore.

Most of all, we listen transactionally.  That is, we listen in order to do something – to help, to react appropriately, to react angrily, to finish, to close a deal, to connect.  But true listening only begins when we let go of our agendas and allow the other person or persons to be fully heard without conditions.

That is very hard to do.  We don’t have enough time, or enough bandwidth, or enough patience.  Or we’ve heard it all before, or we think we know the answer already.

So my resolve for 2014 is to listen, without conditions, without an answer held at the ready, without holding anything in suspense.  My pledge is to do my best to listen in this way to loved ones, to clients, to new acquaintances, and to people I chance to interact with.  I won’t always get it right.  In fact, I won’t get it right even most of the time.  But I hope that with the effort will come a new level of listening that helps the people around me have a better year than last year.

I believe that the only way to cope with information overload is not to shut off the information flow, but rather to stop trying to respond to it transactionally, and instead to listen.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  What’s your idea for 2014?



  1. Great post, Nick, and wonderful inspiration for the new year. I’ve never been much on resolutions, but the idea of selecting a guiding principle really resonates. Think I’ll follow your lead and choose a word/concept to be my guiding star for 2014. Wishing you a prosperous year and hoping you hear all sorts of incredible things….

  2. Wow, how timely — we have just concluded that writing memoirs, even with dictation software, will be asking too much of our 94-year-old father. So this year will be the year that we video record conversations with him to capture all of the irreplaceable memories that he still holds so sharply.

    We’ll be doing a lot of listening…

    1. Rick, I’m so glad to hear that you’re getting your father to record his memoirs! I waited too long for my Dad, and it breaks my heart.

  3. I’m really touched by your thoughtful post, Nick. In Judaism, the most known and spoken prayer is translated as, “HEAR oh Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is one.” There are discussions about whether the translation is ‘Hear’ or ‘Listen’. I’ve always preferred ‘Listen,’ because we can hear anything and everything but it means nothing unless we listen. This point is further portrayed on the High Holidays when we hear the sound of the shofar. The question is: Every ram from which the shofar came has 2 horns, if we don’t have the other, what does it represent for us? The shofar we sound represents speaking out, making sure our voice is heard (for justice) and the other represents listening…if someone is crying out for help (in their words or simply their body language) it is our duty to try to help.

  4. I’m not much about resolutions either, but this year decided, as you did, to adopt a principle and make it a practice. I’m going to be actively grateful for all that I take for granted, circumstances and relationships and advantages and surroundings–all of it. I think we spend too much time striving for the next thing, the next goal, looking past all that we have, and being in a state of permanent discontent as a result.

    Wishing you a tuned-in year of rich listening and much happiness.

  5. A worthy goal Nick, and I note your use of the word ‘transactional’. I think it describes so much business language and mind-set these days, don’t you agree? Soulless, always with a short-term gain or action in mind. You see it with the so-called targeted approach to networking. We assume certain people won’t be interesting and aren’t worth listening to. But when you listen without agenda, when you give people the gift of attention, it’s amazing what magic seems to emerge!

  6. I admire the idea of changing the way we listen. But listening holistically, to hear it all, without conditions or agenda? I find something in it akin to Stephen Colbert avowing he will not “see race”. A joke because it goes against the way our minds work.

    Listening is the act of taking the words we hear and sorting them according to our experiences, knowledge, morality and yes, agendas. And I have been told that this is what education is fundamentally for … to give us more knowledge and experiences to help us listen more critically. To sort the signal from the noise. But the less of an agenda I have, the less I am truly listening.

    For example, I “listened” to your post here (as I tend to do) with an agenda of both critical analysis and exploring my own thoughts on the subject. I grabbed a central idea as it related to me, really from a single paragraph, and then my mind ran with it.

    I could have tried to”listen” to your post with a different purpose: finding the positive, or reaching common ground, or establishing empathy. And I would have focused on different things, and my comment here would have been quite different–perhaps even better.

    But that means I would have listened with a different agenda, but not NO agenda.

    1. Andrew, Andrew. Thanks, as always, for your comments. But in this case, you gloriously and extravagantly miss the point. It’s hard to listen without an agenda — as you so eloquently point out. To listen without an agenda is to use what the Buddhists call “no mind” or “beginner’s mind.” But that’s exactly what’s needed. Of course your mind is going to lunge in with your “experiences, knowledge, morality and …. agendas.” The hard part is NOT doing that. That’s not the same thing as listening to “find the positive, reach common ground, or establish empathy.” Those are other agendas. Trying to listen with none is difficult and something that Zen masters spend a lifetime trying to achieve. That’s what I was taking on in 2014 — to try in a small way to begin that journey — the journey to no mind.

  7. I really love this post and have re-posted it on LinkedIn. Years ago I took an “Intro to Zen” class. The very first thing discussed was the idea of discounting ones immediate reaction, especially judgments like “I like/don’t like”. As you mention too, I’m not always successful in this but adopting as a guiding principle has been huge.

    I’m not sure if Boston’s new mayor Marty Walsh is a follower of PublicWords but after reading your post, the Boston Globe headline resonated: I will Listen. I will Learn. I will Lead.

  8. Hi Dr. Morgan! I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff on and off and want to ask if you have any ideas or have written anything about speaking over the phone – just one to one person speaking. When I have to call an employer, boss, or professor or even a friend with bad news, I get overly nervous and end up slurring my words or not speaking clearly.

    I really want to work on my networking and communication skills this year as I tend to get nervous and then stutter or slur so much!

    Learning to patiently listen to others is definitely a great skill to have and I hope you learn a lot from focusing on it!

    1. Hi, Yvette — thanks for your comment and question. Delivering bad news is always tough, but you do want to be able to speak clearly. Over the phone just makes it tougher, since you don’t get the body language of the person you’re talking to — that means the communication is less rich, and so it’s natural that you’d be nervous. I would suggest 3 things to try. 1. Picture the person in your mind as you’re talking to them. Imagine their body language. That may help restore what’s missing. 2. Pause frequently to let the other person respond. If the channel has less information going through it, you can work to try to increase the information flow. 3. Check in to see how the other person is feeling — ask questions, check for agreement, disagreement, feelings, etc. That is another way to get the information flowing between you. My new book, Power Cues, due out in May 2014, has more on this. Good luck!

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