listen target training

Learning to listen: lessons from baseball, TED talks and an alien life form

How well do you listen?

Sound matters. In work. In life. Sometimes we forget that. I heard a story recently that was told by a former Major League Baseball player. He talked about a manager he once played for. During practice, the manager would put players in the outfield with their backs to home plate. A batter would stand at home plate and have someone pitch the baseball to him. Baseball bats are made of wood and are roughly 30-34 inches long. The cork-filled, leather-covered ball is thrown anywhere from 80-100 miles per hour. The batter would swing the bat and hit the ball. Now here is the important part:

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Because the player in the outfield had their backs to home plate they had to train their ear to know what part of the field the ball was travelling to, based on the sound created when the baseball made contact with the bat. If you’ve ever seen a baseball game (or cricket) you know you can hear when a ball is hit solidly. But you can’t determine where it is going to travel. This manager wanted his players to hear the contact, and make a split-second decision to race to the position they believed the ball was going, without even seeing it. With practice, players knew exactly where the hit ball was going.

They had to learn to listen.

Are we “losing our listening”?

TED, the great, freely accessible online source for learning, has what I think are two of the best talks around on how to achieve excellent communication. Both are by Julian Treasure, author of an excellent book on the impact sound has on our working lives called ‘Sound Business,’ and both are well-worth watching. In one, he talks about speaking well and in the other, the one I suggest below, he talks to us about listening.

Of his five tips on how to listen better, the final one – an acronym, of course – RASA, the Sanskrit word for ‘juice’ or essence’ is exactly that when it comes to business communication: listening is important, it’s the essence of effective business communication. RASA stands for:


That is, actually pay attention to what they’re saying.


By making natural small noises or utterances like, “ah” or “hmm” or “okay.” You may have also heard it referred to as active listening.


Very crucial to all sorts of business communication, from presentations to negotiations and everything in between. Here it’s critical you are authentic and summarise what you heard – NOT what you wanted to hear.


And finally, ask questions. Find out more. Learn as much as you can about a situation, a trend, a project, a risk, or an opportunity.


Learning to listen starts with recognizing all the barriers we create for ourselves. This is where ALF comes in, and no, we’re not talking about the sitcom character that chased cats. ALF means Always Listen First. Julian Treasure warns us at the beginning of his TED talk that ‘we are losing our listening.’

Don’t lose yours. Listen like a Major League player. And Always Listen First.

3 replies
  1. Will
    Will says:

    Yes, watch your series and films in English, but to ‘go the extra mile’ with your learning you should take a five-minute segment and watch it twice. Then, write a summary of what happened, using some new words or phrases you learnt. Finally, check your summary with your Target Trainer for coherence and accuracy. In this way you develop not only your fluency skills, but also your vocabulary, and your listening / written skills.

  2. Will
    Will says:

    Thanks Gary for your valuable advice. I would like to add that listening skills are also vital to improving small talk. All four points of RASA should be practiced to improve small talk skills.

    In a recent seminar I gave on small talk for beginners, we concentrated on finding out which topics the participants found interesting (Receive), then asking each other relevant questions (Ask). While listening to the answer we used active listening (Appreciate), and then finally we echoed key points that we heard, such as facts, numbers etc. (Summarise). All parts of this process involve listening skills.

  3. Jennie Wright
    Jennie Wright says:

    Thanks Gary – you are spot on with this. I feel the most important thing that gets missed is the A for appreciate – especially in virtual meetings. People often ask “Are you there?” because there is no sound or recognition or confirmation – or as you say it – appreciation. When this is added, it may feel strange at first, but then becomes more natural.

    Thanks for the acronym also – they are helpful!

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