How I learnt to listen by making loads of noise

Reading time: 5 minutes

In a world that can’t stop talking, I’m (guiltily) complicit.

My conversational habits started young. My brother was born two years after me. I was so proud of him; I would do anything for him. For a while, this included telling other people what he was thinking. Even when he did start talking, I got in there first. I answered questions directed at him and spoke up when I thought he should say something – often making up his remarks. Poor little guy!

Making a noise

Despite being less extreme than my 3-year-old self, I’ve learnt over the years, that my thinking is done through talking things out. Am I an extrovert? Probably. I definitely add to the noise.

In fact, there is nothing more exhilarating to me, than making a big noise with hundreds of other voices. Be it a big social/PR campaign sharing a brilliant product, crowd funding a worthy cause, or singing in a choir. What gives that its power and what moves an audience, is when we are all intently listening, to align, harmonise and communicate effectively; we turn up the volume and turn many single voices into sounds of harmony.

Making a big noise at Soul of the City choir in Brighton, has taught me a significant and surprising amount about listening and the value it can add to leadership and relationships.

Here are my highlights…

Listen to your leaders

‘Thanks for listening!’ is something I often hear from our choir leader at rehearsals. It normally means a reminder to shut up when we’re being given feedback, instruction and information! But it is also a handy prompt to go deeper than simply listening, to focus and give something my 100% attention.

Focused attention enables me to not just hear what’s going on, but also derive the context and meaning faster, without confusion.

I can’t listen without focusing my attention and I can’t hear without staying quiet. I avoid confusion, gain clarity and learn the most, when I combine the two.

Listen to yourself

In rehearsals and sound checks, I’m often worrying in the background. Am I any good? Am I going to remember the words, the notes and the cues? If I don’t, will I let everyone down?

Sometimes this internal voice can get in the way. It can stop me understanding instructions and inhibit me hearing the rest of the choir. That’s exactly when I could make a mistake or forget something crucial.

Taking the focus off yourself and turning down the volume on any unhelpful inner voices, at key times (meetings, important conversations, coaching), can enable you to listen to the important things ahead and understand what you need to.

Listen to others

In the choir, I get to learn beautiful accapella arrangements in six part harmonies – speed, volume, notes and tone all need to be bang on. That means I’ve got to listen intensely for musical cues from other voices in the choir and blend in with my part.

The bonus is that I get to hear some amazingly beautiful voices in the process.

This is true in my work life too. As I’ve practiced getting better at listening to others, I have started to hear some truly brilliant things; be it from colleagues sharing excellent ideas and insights, to customers sharing brilliant feedback – dialling up my listening has enriched my experiences; my work, ideas and quality of thinking are better as a result.

As the old adage goes, there really is a difference between listening and waiting to speak!


Singing in 5-6 part harmonies is beautiful. Understanding the relationship between those harmonies and my place within that is vital to delivering that beauty.

Pitching accurately, avoiding melody drown out and creating volume balance are crucial harmonising skills. All facilitated by listening to other voices, whilst singing myself.

When you’re in any meeting or conversation, exercising your listening habit can help you understand the relationships between different people and activities – it’ll enable you to pitch your own speed, tone and delivery to ensure you don’t drown anyone out and harmonise effectively.

Listen like an audience

It can be really difficult to learn or sing my part when I’m sat next to others singing something completely different.

Sometimes I will move to the front or centre, so I can listen to everything together. This mimics what the audience will hear and putting myself into that space helps me learn where I need to fit in.

Listening as if you were your audience can be an effective way to learn what you need to do, when and how you need to deliver it, for maximum impact.

Understanding how your audience listens can enable you to make those vital adjustments during a live performance that address subtle audience shifts and deliver a live performance that’s not just technically correct but truly resonates with them.

If you start any creative process thinking about what you’d like your audience to see and hear, as well as considering what you know they’d like to see and hear, it definitely sharpens the quality of what gets offered up!

Listen to feedback

One of the best parts of performing live with choir is the applause and feedback after a performance. It’s most valuable if I really listen to feedback and apply what I’ve learnt to the next one.

Listening to feedback requires being open to both positive and negative comments and not just picking out and holding on to the bits I like.

I got told to smile more once – it was hard to smile over the concentration face, but I started enjoying it more as a result – it really does make a difference to how the performance looks!

It can be hard to listen to negative feedback, but often its valuable information that can help me get better at performing, so don’t just hear feedback, listen and act.

Do you listen enough?

“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”
Susan Cain – Quiet

Turns out making a load of noise with 150 other voices, has actually helped me become a better listener and hone my listening skills. My lovely brother no longer has me chattering away on his shoulder! I’ve learnt to shut up and listen more, particularly when it matters most.

Where can you gain inspiration and learn to listen more effectively?