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  • Toby Sinclair

Summary: The Disciplined Listening Method by Michael Reddington

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

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⭐ Rating: 5/10 - Recommended For: Managers

3 Big Ideas from The Disciplined Listening Method 💡

  1. The Disciplined Listening Method was born from two important realizations. The first realization is that the very best leaders and the very best interrogators capitalize on the same two core skills—vision and influence. The second realization is that the cognitive processes that lead employees to commit to saying, “I’ll do it,” customers to saying, “I’ll buy it,” and guilty interrogation suspects to truthfully admitting, “I did it,” are all essentially identical.

  2. Defining their reason for listening is the first and potentially most important core behavior of the Disciplined Listening Method. Listeners perform better, stay more engaged, and increase both the thoroughness and accuracy of their evaluations when they believe they have a good reason to listen.

  3. The most common fear that holds people back from change is not failure—it’s embarrassment. Failing isn’t the problem. The problem is what other people (including the person we see in the mirror) think and feel about us when we fail. Furthermore, the number one reason why most adults lie is to avoid a perceived consequence. Anytime we need to discuss potentially sensitive topics with someone, we want to choose an environment that is not likely to increase their feelings of embarrassment or judgment, or remind them of any potential consequences.

2 Best Quotes from The Disciplined Listening Method 💬

Listeners who authentically remain engaged with their counterparts position themselves to obtain greater amounts of information and maintain stronger relationships.

I’m assuming most readers have heard the phrase, “knowledge is power.” It certainly is a catchy phrase. It is also false. Instead, knowledge is trivia. Yes, it is important to gather and retain as much relevant knowledge as we can. However, the real power lies in our ability to successfully apply our knowledge within the context of the situations we find ourselves in.

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Tobys Top Takeaway

Think back.

What is your most embarrassing moment?


Crying at school. I was 13! Not what teenage boys do 😬

At work, it’s not failure people avoid.

It’s these gut-wrenching, high-emotion, embarrassing moments.

Some managers however do the opposite.

They use embarrassment as a tactic. Showing how clever they are and how stupid everyone else is.

I’m sure you are not one of those managers.

Even so, you can accidentally embarrass others without knowing it.

Long-time readers will know about the power of questions.

The best leaders ask great questions.

The problem.

Questions can lead to embarrassment.

  • I don’t know the answer (and I don’t want to admit it)

  • I don’t know what is meant by the question (and I don’t want to challenge)

  • I know an answer, but it’s not an answer the leader will want to hear.

This reduces the quality of thinking. It stops everyone from learning.

You can help reduce the embarrassment.

Use phrases like this:

  • "This is a hard question, if you don’t know the answer, come back to me later."

  • "If any of the questions are unclear or not useful, please do feel free to push back."

And when things get embarrassing, acknowledge the moment, don't hide it.

  • “Well, this is embarrassing…I have an observation that might be hard to hear, would you like to hear it?”

There is much talk about failure and psychological safety. Yet very little about embarrassment. But the more I think about it, really that’s what all of us want to avoid.

I could finish by asking for your most embarrassing moments, but I don’t want to embarrass you further.

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Big Ideas Expanded 💡

The Disciplined Listening Method Summary Video

What do Great Listeners do?

"We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

Carl Rogers

Great listeners are rare. The best listeners possess:

  • A strong sense of curiosity

  • The ability to limit their internal monologue

  • The capacity to control their emotions

  • Enough discipline to limit distractions

  • Ample awareness to uncover hidden value

  • Sufficient confidence to empathize with people who harbor opposing perspectives

However, you do not get to decide if you are a good listener; only your audience does.

It’s easy to pretend to “actively” listen. There is a huge difference between appearing to listen and actually listening.

What is “The Disciplined Listening Method”?

“Listening is not understanding the words of the question asked, listening is understanding why the question was asked in the first place.”

Simon Sinek

The Disciplined Listening Method has five core skills:

  • Situational awareness

  • Patience

  • Strategic observation

  • Emotional intelligence

  • The ability to influence others.

Disciplined Listeners consistently exhibit seven core behaviors.

  1. Listen with clear intent within the context of short-term and long-term goals.

  2. Leverage their perceived weaknesses to develop their communication strategies.

  3. Allow the conversation to come to them.

  4. Identify strategic intelligence by evaluating the totality of their counterparts’ verbal and nonverbal communications within the context of the situation.

  5. Adapt their communication strategies to immediately integrate the new intelligence they acquire.

  6. Encourage their counterparts to always protect their self-images.

  7. Develop trust equity through post-conversation follow-up.

Listen for Intelligence, not Information

Listeners perform better, stay more engaged, and increase both the thoroughness and accuracy of their evaluations when they believe they have a good reason to listen. Defining their reason for listening is the first and potentially most important core behavior of the Disciplined Listening Method.

There is a significant difference between information and intelligence. People often fall into a check-the-box mentality when they listen for information. They’ve already decided how they want a conversation to end, so they listen for a few key pieces of information they can use to set up the conclusion they’re expecting.

Listeners identify intelligence when they are guided by their long-term, strategic goals and they focus on creating opportunities to demonstrate value—not arrive at predetermined destinations. Intelligence may be hidden in someone’s tone, word choice, pace, and body language. It may also be hidden in off-the-cuff statements, sidebars, and seemingly unimportant conversations. This intelligence holds the key to creating new value.

Listening involves six distinct steps (Judi Brownell):

  1. Hearing: listeners must fight through internal and external distractions and focus on receiving the right information.

  2. Understanding: involves comprehending the literal meaning of words they hear.

  3. Remembering: a critical component of how attentive listeners are perceived to be.

  4. Interpreting: listeners must consider all the available cues to accurately determine the speaker’s intentions and full meaning of the message.

  5. Evaluating: when listeners judge the messages they receive and arrive at conclusions based on what they’ve observed.

  6. Responding: when listeners create an opportunity for speakers to assess their listening efforts.

Four primary listening styles (Kittie Watson):

  1. People-focused listeners tend to be more successful identifying emotional cues and common areas of interest.

  2. Action-focused listeners often pinpoint inconsistencies or mistakes in messages and prefer concise, organized, and logical explanations.

  3. Content-focused listeners tend to be a little more patient and pay attention to the entire message and supporting evidence.

  4. Time-focused listeners often prefer to get the information they need as quickly as possible and typically aren’t shy to remind speakers of that fact.

Six levels of listening (Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman):

  • Level 1 - Listening as creating a safe environment where difficult and emotional issues can be discussed.

  • Level 2 - Listeners remove all distractions (yes, including and especially your cell phone) and maintain appropriate eye contact.

  • Level 3 - Listeners seek to understand the substance of the message they are receiving and confirm the accuracy of their understanding.

  • Level 4 - Listeners observe nonverbal cues.

  • Level 5 - Listeners empathize with their counterparts by identifying, acknowledging, and validating their emotions without conveying judgment.

  • Level 6 - Listeners ask questions to clarify their assumptions and help reframe the issues being discussed—without hijacking the conversation.

When Listening turns Judgemental

When you make judgements about another person, this can lead to conflict. The best listeners know how to reflect back on what they heard and how they feel about it.

  • “I can see that you’re angry.” vs “Being treated that way can easily make people angry.”

  • “You’re clearly upset.” vs “Feeling upset is a valid response.”

  • "I can see you are struggling." vs "Moments like are very challenging"

You can follow up with any statements with:

“Please correct me where I’m wrong,”

This is much different than saying, “Please correct me if I’m wrong.” The if implies that we expect to be right, and can be perceived as arrogant. The where implies that we may not be correct, and reframes our audience’s listening perspective.

There is also risk when you tell someone, “I understand.” If a speaker shares emotions or unique experiences and the listener responds by saying, “I understand,” it can feel assumptive, disingenuous, and breed suspicion and distrust. Alternatives include:

  • “I believe I’m starting to understand.”

  • “My current understanding is . . .”

  • “From my experience, I believe the piece I understand best is . . .”

  • “As I start to try and understand . . .”

  • “From the outside, I could never completely understand.”

Avoid Making People Embarassed

The most common fear that holds people back from change is not failure—it’s an embarrassment. Failing isn’t the problem. The problem is what other people (including the person we see in the mirror) think and feel about us when we fail. Furthermore, the number one reason why most adults lie is to avoid a perceived consequence. Anytime we need to discuss potentially sensitive topics with someone, we want to choose an environment that is not likely to increase their feelings of embarrassment or judgment, or remind them of any potential consequences.

Disciplined Listeners know that causing their counterparts to feel judged, demeaned, or embarrassed on any level will quickly eliminate any opportunities to obtain sensitive information.

Direct vs Indirect Communication Approaches

Two of the leading interrogation techniques in the United States take diametrically opposing approaches. One approach requires interrogators to directly accuse their suspects of the crimes they’re suspected of committing at the outset of the interrogation. The other approach requires interrogators to execute a ten-to-fifteen-minute educational monologue prior to issuing their first soft accusation. When students see both techniques outlined next to each other, they typically assume the direct approach obtains admissions quicker because the interrogator cuts right to the chase. However, the direct approach puts people on the defensive, creates a competitive environment, increases their resistance, and creates more obstacles for the interrogator to navigate. The educational approach allows interrogators to reframe their suspects’ perspectives and reduce their resistance prior to posing their soft accusations. On average, interrogators who use this patient approach obtain the first admission in under twenty minutes, whereas interrogators who directly accuse their suspects right out of the gate typically need at least forty-five minutes to obtain the first admission. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Why Situational Awareness Matters

Situational awareness is the cornerstone of the Disciplined Listening Method. Situational awareness essentially means knowing what is going on around you, and how these events impact your ability to achieve your goals.

A common example of an anti-situationally aware approach is knowing that what you want to say is inflammatory, but saying it anyway because it makes you feel better.

Situational awareness is:

“the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.”

Mica Endsley

According to Endsley, there are three levels to situational awareness:

  • Level one - Perception, involves recognizing all the important information around us.

  • Level two - Comprehension. This is the stage where observers combine, restore, and retain information.

  • Level three - Projection. Endsley refers to this as the highest level of situational awareness—the ability to accurately predict the future. This is the stage where observers project their current understanding and anticipate future events and their implications. Excelling at this stage allows for timely decision-making.

How To Increase Your Influence

When people consider changing someone’s mind, getting buy-in, or negotiating agreements, they often look for leverage, which is comparable to searching for the high ground. This approach often results in creating division, unnecessary competition, and reinforcing in-group out-group dynamics. The traditional negotiation concept has long been that whoever has the most power in a situation holds the most leverage. This power may be based on title, reputation, money, organizational size, threats, or other factors. William Ury and his team at Harvard University reframed this argument when they illustrated that leverage resides with the person who has the strongest BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) This concept does a much better job leading negotiators to negotiate based on interests, as opposed to staking themselves and their counterparts to positions. Essentially, Ury and his team believe that whoever has the best plan B is the one who is most willing to walk away, and therefore is in possession of the most leverage in the conversation.

There is a third concept of leverage that is often overlooked: the ability to influence others. When we lack traditional power, or a strong plan B, our ability to influence becomes our last source of leverage. Developing the skills necessary to persuade people to commit to your ideas creates powerful advantages in all your conversations.

How To Prepare for a Significant Conversation

I ask myself the opposite question when I prepare for any significant conversation: “Why shouldn’t they commit to what I want them to do?”

Once I’ve answered the first question, I ask myself its sister question: “Why haven’t they already committed to what I want them to do?”

The next question I ask myself is “What do they need to experience before choosing to commit to what I need them to?”

To Listen Better, Ask Questions

Questions are an integral part of listening. Great questions confirm what you have heard, demonstrate that you are interested in both the conversation and your counterpart, and move the conversation forward. Great questions also generate intelligence-laden responses that move us closer to our goals and bolster our relationships. On the other hand, poor questions can expose our disinterest, our lack of attention and preparation, and destroy our credibility, thereby damaging relationships.

There is a direct link between the questions we ask and the results we achieve. Asking better questions yields stronger information, leads to better decisions, and creates better results. Asking impulsive and poorly conceived questions stops us from obtaining critical information and negatively impacts our decisions and results.

Seven truths about questions:

  1. Know what is more important: asking the question or obtaining the answer

  2. Questions create problems that need to be solved

  3. Questions can be perceived as invitations or attacks

  4. How questions are set up is more important than the questions themselves

  5. Lead to your most important question, not with your most important question

  6. The direct path is the path of most resistance

  7. Great questions are concise questions

Know what is more important: asking the question or obtaining the answer

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is asking questions based on what they want to say, as opposed to what their counterparts need to feel in order to own the decision to respond honestly. Leaders often deliver their questions based on their emotions in the moment, the information they want to obtain, and their perception of their own superiority. People typically answer questions in a manner that they believe will help them save face, avoid consequences, and satisfy their questioner. This results in a sizable gap between the information we want to obtain and the information we often receive.

The next time you find yourself in an emotional conversation and a question pops into your mind, stop yourself from immediately asking it. Pause, and think through how the question may make your counterpart feel. If you believe that there is any chance it may cause your counterpart to feel defensive or embarrassed, refrain from asking it just yet.

Lead to your most important question, not with your most important question

We can expect our counterparts’ resistance to be the highest at the beginning of our conversations. This is when they are trying to determine what the conversation is about, what impact the conversation could have on them, and what they should or shouldn’t say. Unfortunately, this is also the time our stress levels may be the highest. When we are under stress, we go to what we know. The stress we feel, our focus on saving time, and our egos can all drive us to ask our most important questions right away. This forces our counterparts to receive our requests with maximum defensiveness.

Leading to your best question allows you to shift your counterparts’ perceptions over time. This technique also helps you prime them to answer your question by encouraging them to share less threatening information first. Once your counterparts have been primed, and have reduced their defenses, you can ask your most important question and significantly increase the odds that you will obtain the information you’re looking for.

The direct path is the path of most resistance

For example, let’s say you have a manager who you believe is not taking the time to coach and develop his people. You could take the direct path and confront him with your thoughts by saying, “Why aren’t you developing your people?” “It doesn’t appear that you are developing your people,” or even, “Do you believe you are taking the necessary time to develop your people?” Each one of those questions will likely cause the manager to protect himself by answering defensively. A better approach is to wind down a question funnel that leads your manager to accept that he isn’t spending enough time developing his team.

Great questions are concise questions

Convoluted and confusing questions complicate our counterparts’ cognitive processes and reduce the value of the answers we receive.

Common Questioning Mistakes

The first is issuing accidental accusations. Anytime you ask someone, “Did you,” “Why didn’t you,” “Do you,” or “Why don’t you,” or any of their cousin questions, we create an accusatory environment. We may feel like we are simply checking to see if someone did what they were supposed to, while they can feel like you are accusing them of not doing it. This is a frequently unrecognized conversation killer.

A related mistake is asking questions with implied expected answers. Again, we often get what we ask for. Perhaps the most common question that betrays a leader’s best intentions with an implied expected answer is, “Do you have any questions?” When a leader (read: expert) follows up their instructions by asking, “Do you have any questions?” the implied expected answer is “No,” regardless of how eager the leader is to answer any questions.

Question fatigue is real. The value of the information you receive will drop as your counterparts tire of the number of questions you’re asking them.

The real danger with all these mistakes is not just the unobtained information and aroused emotions.

Every question we ask should serve a specific, goal-oriented purpose. If we cannot articulate how a question is going to improve our situation, we should not ask it.

There are six types of questions you can use to obtain the truth:

  1. Closed

  2. Open

  3. Expansion

  4. Assumptive

  5. Choice

  6. Enticement

The Disciplined Listening Method Questions 1

The Disciplined Listening Method Questions 2

How Status Influences Listening

If you are talking to another person who has information that you need to obtain, you are not in control of the conversation, regardless of your title or position. The more you try to demand control of the conversation, the less control you have.

This next statement will almost certainly feel counterintuitive. The best way to maintain control of most conversations is to allow your counterpart to feel as if they are in control. Metaphorically speaking, if you push someone, their first reaction is to push you back—harder. Then you respond in kind, and the situation quickly escalates.

Margarete Imhof’s research found that assessments of good and poor listening behavior are directly related to the perceived status of the listener. Her research found that listeners in subordinate (i.e., employee, child) positions are expected to behaviorally orient themselves toward speakers with superior status, send clear attention signals, and ask questions. This means that superiors believe their subordinates are good listeners when they remain quiet, don’t interrupt, aren’t distracted, appear focused and patient, and ask clarifying questions. Conversely, subordinates are considered to be poor listeners if they appear preoccupied, distracted, unprepared, look around, interrupt, change the subject, don’t ask any questions, or ask a superior to repeat what they’ve said.

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