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3 Steps to Active Listening

A group of business people talking in an office.

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. He welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

If there's one thing I've learned as an executive coach, it's this: People vastly overrate their ability to listen. In the workplace, this is true from CEO to manager to employee – and to HR professional.

For starters, there's an overwhelming imbalance between question-marks and periods. Virtually every sentence ends in the latter. Occasionally, you'll get the former—if you're lucky. Even then, questions are likely to be narrow—mere placeholders between statements—"You agree, don't you, that . . .."

It's time to break the habit.

The EAR Listening Method

The EAR method is a three-step process. "E" stands for "explore," "A" stands for "acknowledge" and "R" stands for "response." It's a sequence.

"Explore" with open-ended questions followed by probing and prodding. "What …?" "How …?" "What else?" "Please share an example." "Help me understand." "Anything else?" "Explore" questions are curiosity-based where you're genuinely trying to find out what the other person thinks.

Once you've explored the other person's position, move to "acknowledge." Get the person to acknowledge that you understand him or her, not the other way around. "If I understand you correctly ... Is that accurate?"

If the person says "No, that's not my position," you simply go back to the "E." "I'm sorry. Please explain what I missed."

After you've confirmed with the other person his or her position, you're ready for your "response." How you respond is up to you. The key is that by following this sequence your response will be (a) more thoughtful; (b) more likely to be received well; and (c) not derailed by an erroneous assumption (which I pronounce "ASSumption.")

Common EAR Missteps

Everyone I coach learns about the EAR. And everyone I coach doesn't get it right at first. The EAR takes practice and discipline. We're hardwired to mess it up. Here are the most common mistakes my EAR students unwittingly make.

  1. Impatience with the "E." "Explore" doesn't mean asking a single "How" or "What" question and then jumping to the "A." "Explore" means explore. Take the time and make the effort to truly capture the other's person's position, views, and facts he or she thinks are important. Avoid the temptation to tell yourself, "Let's get this over quickly so I get to talk!"
  2. Skipping the "A." In their eagerness to get to the "R", my coachees often omit "acknowledge." They don't get confirmation that they understand the other person before launching into their response. Instead of "acknowledge," "A" becomes "ASSumption."
  3. Cross-examination questions. Speaking as an ex-litigator, there is never a time for cross-examination questions when you're using the EAR method. No question should ever state or imply your view. Ditch, "Isn't it true that . . .?" And get rid of, "Why did you screw up?" All questions should be curiosity-based, where you're genuinely trying to learn. If you have a problem with what the other person is saying, use the No-FEAR Confrontation method.
  4. Mechanical use of the technique. I once got surprising feedback from an employee my coachee managed. She said my coachee was a "great" listener and a "terrible" listener. How do you reconcile this?! It turns out my coachee diligently and correctly applied the EAR method. And then she would launch into her already thought-out response. As a result, the process felt phony. Bear in mind: the EAR method is not a manipulative technique; it's a means to meaningful interaction and human connection.
  5. Lost opportunity. When employing the EAR method, I encourage you to think of the "A" as having two meanings. One is "acknowledge." The other is "apply." Regardless of whether you share their overall view, invariably, the person will say something you can work with. Don't miss the opportunity to include what's meaningful to them in what's meaningful to you—your response. The more you incorporate their ideas, views and even words into your response, the more likely you'll find common ground.

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to


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