The lost art of listening

Guest post by Adam Grant PhD

Betty Bigombe had already hiked eight miles through the jungle, and there was still no sign of life. She was no stranger to a long walk — growing up in northern Uganda, she’d walked four miles each way to school. She subsisted on one meal a day in a communal homestead where her uncle had eight wives.

Now she had made it all the way to the Ugandan Parliament, and she was undertaking a challenge that none of her colleagues would brave: Trying to make peace with a warlord.

Joseph Kony was the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He and his rebel group would eventually be held responsible for murdering more than 100,000 people, abducting over 30,000 children, and displacing over two million Ugandans.

In the early 1990s, Betty convinced the Ugandan president to send her in to see if she could stop the violence.

When Betty finally made contact with the rebels after months of effort, they were insulted at the prospect of negotiating with a woman. Yet Betty negotiated her way to getting permission to meet Kony himself. Soon he was referring to her as “Mummy,” and he even agreed to leave the jungle to start peace talks.

Although the peace effort didn’t succeed, opening Kony’s mind to conversation was a remarkable accomplishment. For her efforts to end the violence, Betty was named Uganda’s Woman of the Year. When I spoke to her, I asked how she had succeeded in getting through to Kony and his people.

In one poll, one-third of women said their pets were better listeners than their partners.

The key, she explained, was not persuading or even coaxing, but listening.

Think about how rare good listening is. It’s common for doctors to interrupt their patients within 11 seconds, even though patients may need 29 seconds to describe their symptoms. And among managers who had been rated as the worst listeners by their employees, 94 percent of them evaluated themselves as good or very good listeners. In one pollone-third of women said their pets were better listeners than their partners.

Listening well is more than a matter of talking less. It’s a set of skills in asking and responding. It starts with showing more interest in other people’s interests, rather than in trying to judge their status or prove our own.

When we’re trying to get people to change, that can be a difficult task. Even if we have the best of intentions, we can easily slip into the mode of a preacher perched on a pulpit, a prosecutor making a closing argument or a politician giving a stump speech. We’re all vulnerable to the “righting reflex,” as psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick describe it — the desire to fix problems and offer answers, but a person who’s skilled in motivational interviewing resists the righting reflex. Although people want a doctor to fix their broken bones, they often want sympathy rather than solutions when it comes to the problems in their heads.

In a series of experiments, interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener made people less anxious and defensive. They felt less pressure to avoid contradictions in their thinking, which encouraged them to explore their opinions more deeply, recognize more nuances in them, and share them more openly.

Many communicators try to make themselves look smart. Great listeners are more interested in making their audiences feel smart.

These benefits of listening aren’t limited to one-on-one interactions. They can also emerge in groups. In experiments across government organizations, tech companies and schools, people’s attitudes become more complex and less extreme after they sat in a listening circle, where one person at a time held a talking stick and everyone else listened attentively.

Psychologists recommend practicing this skill by sitting down with people whom we sometimes have a hard time understanding. The idea is to tell them we’re working on being better listeners, we’d like to hear their thoughts and we’ll listen for a few minutes before responding.

Many communicators try to make themselves look smart. Great listeners are more interested in making their audiences feel smart.

That’s what Betty Bigombe set out to do in Uganda. Betty started traveling through rural areas to visit camps for internally displaced people. She figured some might have relatives in Joseph Kony’s army and might know something about his whereabouts. Although she hadn’t been trained in motivational interviewing, she intuitively understood the philosophy. At each camp, she announced to people that she wasn’t there to lecture them but to listen to them.

Her curiosity and confident humility caught the Ugandans by surprise. Other peacemakers had come in ordering them to stop fighting. They’d preached about their own plans for conflict resolution and prosecuted the past efforts that failed.

As Betty Bigombe muses, “Even the devil appreciates being listened to.”

But Betty — a politician by profession — didn’t tell them what to do. She just sat patiently for hours in front of a bonfire, taking notes and chiming in from time to time to ask questions. “If you want to call me names, feel free to do so,” she said. “If you want me to leave, I will.”

To demonstrate her commitment to peace, Betty stayed in the camps, even though they lacked sufficient food and proper sanitation. She invited people to air their grievances and suggest remedial measures to be taken. They told her it was rare and refreshing for an outsider to give them the opportunity to share their views. She empowered them to generate their own solutions, which gave them a sense of ownership. Eventually, they rethought their resistance to her.

People in the camps ended up calling Betty “megu,” which translates literally to “mother”. It’s also a term of endearment for elders. Bestowing this honorific was particularly striking given that Betty was representing the government, which was seen as the oppressor in many of the camps. It wasn’t long before people were offering to introduce her to coordinators and commanders in Joseph Kony’s guerilla army.

As Betty muses, “Even the devil appreciates being listened to.”

Excerpted from the new book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Adam Grant.

Watch his TED Talk here:







Adam Grant


Adam Grant PhD is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, a #1 New York Times bestselling author and the host of the TED podcast WorkLife.


If You Ask Me

Note From Bob:   How many times have you connected with someone who has lost their spouse and not quite...

Do you know how to lead with questions?

Originally posted @ Many leaders find themselves working with teams from diverse backgrounds....

A Simple Recipe for When Conversation Feels Stuck

Guest Post by Amber Johnson A few years ago, I heard a cookbook author on a radio program. She mentioned that...

Everyone Can Ask Powerful Questions

Excerpted with permission from the 20th Chapter of “When Everyone Leads” by Ed O’Malley and...

Engaging God through Character-Centric Questions

Guest Post by Tom Steffen and Ray Neu Why didn’t Jesus play the role of the Bible Answer Man during his...

Study Reveals A Conversation Trick That Motivates People To Change Their Behavior

Guest Post by Amy Morin Originally posted @ Whether you want your New Year’s resolution to...

 Leaders Ask Questions

Excerpted with permission from Chapter 5 of “Thrown In: Ready or Not, You Are the Leader” by Mark...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.