John C. McGinley on Improving Your Listening Skills with “Verbing”


When people discuss the essential communication skills for leaders, active listening is always listed. This typically includes the same general practices—paraphrase, maintain eye contact, keep an open body language, etc. While beneficial, do these tips really make you a better listener or do they help you look like a better listener?

Listening is not as easy as it may sound. Amidst all of the distractions, preconceived ideas, and how we prepare responses while the other person is still talking, it’s a wonder we can hear what anyone has to say. To really listen we need a way to force ourselves into paying attention amidst all of our competing thoughts…and I think John C. McGinley has cracked the code.

You probably know John C. McGinley from his acting roles in Platoon, Office Space, Wall Street and the show Scrubs. What you may not know is that he is also an accomplished author. In his book Untalkative Bunny: How To Be Heard Without Saying A Word, McGinley discusses the ways we can utilize nonverbal communication for greater comprehension. He elaborated on a particularly useful technique in a recent interview:

It’s about what supporting actors do when they are listening. It distills down to this—it’s a verb… We’re astonished. We wonder. We question. The book purports that if you can attach a verb to your listening, you will listen 10% better. So if the Monday morning meeting which you’ve gone to every Monday morning on the sixth floor of IBM which is droned on by the same middle management guy, if you can bring a verb to that meeting…so to participate, if that’s the verb, you’ll listen 10% better.

Before passing along a suggestion, I like to test it out. So when preparing for six back-to-back interviews in a single afternoon, which can get fairly monotonous, I decided to attach the word curious to my listening. Before you correct my grammar, yes, I know curious is not a verb. The point is that I gave my listening an action—I am going to be curious. And it worked. Whenever I began losing interested, I reminded myself to be curious. As a result, I asked more questions and dug deeper into the candidate’s background and personality.

Leaders cannot communicate if they are not able to listen to what others have to say. By associating pre-designating actions with a conversation, we are creating the prompts that can make us a more skillful listener and a more active participant in the interaction. You can “fake” your active listening with head nods and rhetorical restatements of what the other person said or you can genuinely be interested by selecting a verb that will push you into paying attention. Then, if you can actually feel engaged, all of those active listening techniques will come naturally.

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