Are You In Listen Only Mode?

I’m at one of my oldest friend’s wedding listening to another old friend talk about his new life out in Australia. I’m fascinated and encourage him to share more details. Sometime later as his monologue lengthens, I realise I’ve slipped into ‘listen only mode’ and I don’t know how to best flip the switch.


If the tables were turned, chances are I would have become aware of talking at length and have stopped with a ‘Well that’s enough about me, what about you?’ But such awareness in my friend was not forthcoming so the stories continued. I didn’t really mind in this context (after all, he is a good raconteur) but it makes me reflect ‘Surely I’ve got over this one by now!’


Growing up, certain values and behaviours were really ingrained into me. Two of those include ‘It’s rude to interrupt’ and ‘Wait your turn’. This created some challenges for me later on when I was not offered my turn or any substantial cues onto which I could ‘butt in’. A tutor at Oxford University once called me ‘stroppy’ as I’d overcompensate back then by being fairly aggressive with my (singularly male) peers in college tutorials, trying to get a word in between their confident and lengthy contributions.  (Whether or not that same tutor would have called a male student stroppy for exhibiting the same behaviour is another thing….)


We’re all familiar with the refrain ‘talk less, listen more’, but from where I stand, the issue for many women is that they are actually listening too much and not doing enough of the talking! I’ve sat through many a meeting where the women present have struggled to cut through the male dominated chat and be heard. Many different factors would have been in play, such as a lack of mutual respect, different gender ‘rules’ around interrupting and linguistic styles, or a lack of status for example.


One aspect I’ve observed many times, and which comes up for 9 out 10 of my coaching clients, is confidence, with women, far more than men, exhibiting a shortfall in the confidence required to switch out of ‘listen only mode’ and be able to talk as well. Many research studies support my observations, such as that undertaken by the Institute of Leadership and Management in 2011. Half of all the women surveyed exhibited low levels of self confidence and self doubt; only 30% of the male participants did.


So what to do if you find yourself stuck in ‘listen only mode’ and feel it’s high time you fully contributed, speaking up and getting yourself heard?


The first vital step is to believe in the value of your thoughts and ideas. ‘Own’ your competence.   I’ve delivered many training webinars around confidence and authored an award winning book ‘Alchemy for the Mind: Create Your Confident Core’, on this subject and so here are a few more tips. What would you add here?


  • Be prepared. But don’t overdo it and become overworked and stressed out – rather be discerning.

         What is it that you really need to know, do and be in those meetings to speak up?


  • Practice! Enrol the support of a trusted colleague, friend or partner and work out those interjections and phrases that will allow you to step into the conversation. No need to get stroppy about it (never worked for me!) but if you are stuck for ideas, try googling! Practice saying the phrases out loud. When we are unused to using certain phrases, they will get stuck in our throats. Practice stating things clearly and confidently. Here’s a few to get you started. 


  • I disagree with you. I see the situation this way (Own the ‘I’! – It’s so powerful)
  • I appreciate (acknowledge 1st) …  I don’t appreciate (what you did/ your tone of voice)
  • I would like you to respect my opinion.


  • Positive, assertive body language. Only 7% of communication results from the words we say. All those body language books are right so go read some if you think this is something you need to work on. Become aware of how you are holding yourself and identify one or two things you can change. Build on small wins and shifts to develop your own, authentic presence – and watch how things become a whole lot easier!