It may be just another urban legend, but a former U.S. President, known far and wide as an attentive listener, was once asked by an old friend for some dating advice. It seems the friend, who had a reputation for being prolix, had little trouble finding women to go on first dates with him. But, the women seldom wanted to go out on a second or third date. “What should I do?” the beleaguered man asked his famous friend.

“Have you tried listening?” was the reply.


The need to listen well is perhaps best shown by a prominent British woman whose name history has failed to record. But, we do know she moved in London’s upper circles. And so, she had the good fortune to dine on two occasions with well-known politicians. First, she dined with Prime Minister William Gladstone. And later, with his arch rival Benjamin Disraeli.

Asked to compare the two, she gave this response. “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the most clever man in all of England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the most clever woman in all of England.”

And then there was the time another world leader was visiting the White House. In a humorous effort to move below the layers of artifice that often characterize conversation at White House affairs, President Franklin Roosevelt sometimes said outrageous things, just to prove his point that meaningful dialog was virtually impossible in such social gatherings. 

In standing lines, for example, when people made the inevitable query, “How are you today, sir?” he would sometimes reply, “Fine, thank you, I just murdered my grandmother this morning.” No one ever even heard him, or if they did, they no doubt thought they had misunderstood him and so failed to ask for clarification. 

One guest, however, whose listening skills were superior to most others’, stopped and asked, “What did she do to deserve that, sir?”


This simple experiment illustrates how we hear what we expect to hear. You’ll need a friend with whom to engage. Ask him or her to pronounce the following words. (Pause ever so briefly between the first and second syllable of each.)

   MacHenry, MacDonald, MacIntyre, MacAllen, MacKnight, MacEnroe, MacAllister,   


If your friend pronounces the final word as “machinery” instead of “MacHinery,” you will know you have a good listener among your circle of friends.

Here’s another test for your friend. Read the following verse to him or her. If your friend is listening well, the answer to the question will be obvious: 

     “Henry’s mother had four children.

      That is all.

      The first one’s name was Summer.

      The second one’s name was Fall.

     The third child was Winder.

     That leaves one more.

     Can you tell me the name of the last child she bore?”


A good reality check is to ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how you would rate yourself as a listener. Then, ask your spouse, significant other, partner, or  good friend to rate you on the same scale. If the numbers are the same, you’ve done a good job of honestly assessing your listening skills. If they are not the same, especially if your rating is high and the other one is not, you may have some work to do.

These questions will help if you are serious about improving your listening skills.

To how many of them can you answer yes”?

   Do you watch facial expressions of others as you talk with them?

   Do your expressions show sincere interest?

   Do you  remain focused on the speaker’s face and ignore distractions in the 


   Do you give feedback to show you are interested? (If so, how?)

    Do you deliberately avoid interrupting others as they speak?

   Do you maintain a comfortable distance from others?

   Do you paraphrase on occasion to check your understanding of what is being said?

   Do you inquire about the feeling behind the words?

   Do you work at not finishing sentences for others as they speak?

   Do you show respect for the opinions of those who disagree with your viewpoint?


Yes, it takes work to attend to what others are saying. Another urban legend may explain why attending is so hard. It seems a famous psychologist once polled an audience following his lecture. He found to his dismay that half of them had been thinking erotic thoughts as he spoke! 

A good rule of thumb is the 50/50 rule. In an given conversation, listen half the time and speak the other half. (You can have a third party surreptitiously measure your talk time when you are not expecting to be analyzed.) Above all, know that you, like Ernest Hemingway, can learn a great deal from listening. “Most people,” he sadly observed, “never listen.”


  • Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 60+ books, the most recent of which ("Applying Mr. Einstein") will be released by HRD Press in 2020. You can reach her at [email protected].