Active Listening-What Our Parents Didn’t Teach Us about Success

As youngsters, most of us were taught by our parents that if we wanted to succeed in life we would have to study hard, work hard, and develop our talents. That’s good advice that has proved to be helpful, but most of our parents neglected to tell us about the most important ingredient of success. You see, knowledge and talent account for only 15% of the ingredients of success. The other 85% is due to a factor our parents forgot to mention.

Without this missing ingredient, we can never realize our full potential and will remain a pale shadow of what we were meant to be.

Barak Obama is an example of a great success. In his November 4, 2008 celebratory speech, he thanked his grandmother for all she had taught him, his wife for her support, his V.P. for his assistance, his campaign manager for his good advice, his campaign team for their tireless, round-the-clock effort, and his hundreds of thousands of supporters for their financial contributions and relentless “get-out-and-vote” campaign.

Yes, Barak Obama realized that the source of our power is people. The more we get along with others, the greater the likelihood that we will be able to unleash our potential. Getting along with others represents 85% of the reason for success.

One of the keys to getting along with others is to have highly developed communication skills. The abilities to make your point without offending others and to understand their viewpoint will make you an invaluable friend. But before we can perfect our communication skills, we need to know more about the subject.

Let’s start by looking at a few examples.

John returns from work and puzzled by his wife’s expression asks, “Is something wrong?”

“No!” she emphatically scowls as she rolls her eyes and deeply sighs.

John’s wife answered his question by communicating with him in three ways:

1. VERBALLY. Verbal communication is our spoken language, the words we use. In our example, the verbal communication of John’s wife was, “No.” It is important to understand that verbal communication represents just 10% of the message’s meaning, so it is not to be taken very seriously. Or, as Peter Drucker (1909 ~ 2005) wrote, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

2. TONALITY. We deliver our message not only by words, but by the tone of our voice. The pitch and loudness or softness of voice is more important than the words we use. In fact, tonality represents 40% of the message. So, the tonality used by John’s wife allowed him to hear what wasn’t being said. For although she said nothing was wrong, the way she angrily shouted “No!” revealed that something was, despite her denial.

3. BODY LANGUAGE. When John’s wife answered him, she had a scowl on her face, rolled up her eyes, and took a deep, exasperated sigh. These components of communication are called body language and they represent 50% of the meaning of the message.

Let’s take a quick look at three more examples to point out how we can apply our understanding of verbal, tonal, and body language communication.

Mary is thinking, “Although I politely ask my husband to leave the toilet seat down when he is finished, he always leaves it up. Why doesn’t he comply with my simple request? Why doesn’t he understand?”

The `problem’ Mary is experiencing is more due to her lack of understanding than her husband’s. After all, Mary gives too much importance to her verbal communication. Just because she says, “When you finish in the toilet, please lower the toilet seat,” she thinks she is being polite. But her husband can tell by the tone of her voice and her body language that she is angry. So, his wife’s message isn’t “Please lower the toilet seat,” but “I’m angry because you don’t lower the toilet seat.” In other words, his wife is effectively saying, “I find your behavior unacceptable. I find a part of you unacceptable.” This is hardly the type of communication that draws couples closer together.

Here’s another example. While speaking before a group, there were a few interruptions that interfered with my wish to make a smooth presentation. Although I was upset by the distractions, I didn’t specifically come out and say so. Later, at lunch, a member of the group said, “It looked like you were upset by the distractions.” This is a good example of the principle “You cannot not communicate.” That is, even though I may not want to say I’m upset, when I am, it is impossible not to communicate it. Of course, I can avoid expressing it verbally, but I can’t hide my feelings because my body language and tonality will communicate what I do not say.

Here’s a third example taken from my adventures in Japan. I lived there 15 years and married a Japanese citizen. Although my wife came from the province of Akita in northern Japan where they speak a unique dialect, she spoke standard (Tokyo) Japanese when she was with me. When I met her mother for the first time, I couldn’t understand a word she said because the Akita dialect was completely foreign to me. Yet, after a 20 ~ 30 minute `conversation,’ my mother-in-law marveled at my ability to understand every word she said. How did this miracle take place?

Well, although I didn’t understand the words she spoke, her body language and tonality revealed her feelings, which quickly changed with each story she told me. So, all I did was remain in sync with her feelings by interjecting generic phases to show I understood. At the appropriate time, I threw in expressions such as, “Oh, I see. Really? I understand how you feel. That must have been awful! That’s surprising. Tell me more! Oh, that’s interesting.”

Another principle of communication is “The meaning of the communication is the response you get.” So, it is not the words we use, but the response we get that determines whether our communication is successful. After my first `conversation’ with my mother-in-law, as soon as we parted she informed all family members and friends about my `extraordinary fluency,’ making me a welcomed guest every where. The response I got made my communication successful.

When it comes to great speakers versus good listeners, only 18% of the population would prefer to speak to a great speaker. The other 82% prefers to speak to a good listener. So, a sure-fire way to get along with others is to listen to what they have to say. By `listen’ I mean what is called `active listening.’ Active listening means you are fully engaged, not distracted. You carefully weigh the communication and ask for clarification where necessary. What’s more, you encourage the person you’re with to speak freely and express interest in what is being said.


1. It builds stronger relationships.
2. It makes it easier to resolve problems.
3. You learn a great deal, for we can only learn when we listen, not when we speak.


1. Anticipating what is going to be said instead of being open to what is being said.
2. Paying too much attention to what is being said, rather than how it is said.
3. Seeking confirmation of your preconceived ideas, rather than new information.


1. Ask questions.
2. Encourage elaboration.
3. Listen empathetically. See it from their viewpoint.
4. Give feed back to check your understanding.
5. Be accepting and nonjudgmental.
6. Pay attention. Don’t let your mind wander.
7. Maintain eye contact.
8. Don’t jump to conclusions.
9. Remain open-minded.
10. Don’t finish your companion’s sentence.
11. Check your understanding by paraphrasing and summarizing what you think was said.

Think of people as closed treasure chests. It is only by openly engaging with them that they open up, revealing their splendor and enabling us to share in their riches. On the other hand, whenever we belittle, reject, avoid, condemn, or criticize others, we strip away our power, potential, and progress. Let’s remember what our parents didn’t teach us, the most important ingredient of success is getting along with others, for people are the source of our power, success, and happiness.