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Perspectives on Quality of Life: Conversation with Dennis Ross about Active Listening


I was recently reading over an interview I did with Dennis Ross, one of the most skilled diplomats in the world. He was the chief Middle East envoy during the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and was appointed by Obama this month to serve as the chief envoy for Iran. He is the author of the diplomacy book Statecraft.

Dennis is one of the most understated, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. He epitomizes the guy who just doesn’t take himself that seriously. He likes to invoke DeGaulle’s quote, “The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable people.”

But perhaps Dennis’s most outstanding quality of life skill is active listening. Here’s what Dennis shared with me about the importance of listening when it comes to quality of life. 

“I tell people that work with me that one of the most important skills in negotiations is active listening. I believe in not always asking questions with the purpose of getting the other side to reveal things. There is immense, untapped benefit to getting a deep understanding of what drives them and you certainly build good will with such an approach. “Why is that issue important to you. I want to understand it the way you understand it. I don’t want to have a false impression. Explain to me why that matters so much to you. Where does it come from? Why does it create an imperative?” You can’t find the underlying sources of behavior and issues unless you ask questions in this way. In my personal life, this skill has made me more interested in others and in turn made others more comfortable with me. When people see that I am curious by being an active listener, they get a message of respect from me. And of course you have the benefit of actually learning something.”

Well said, no?  We all know that feeling of respect we feel when we encounter people like this.  Those that don’t feel a need for the conversation to revolve around them.  That are secure enough that they don’t need to preoccupy themselves with coming across as interesting all the time.  Those that when you are talking about your vacation will ask you follow up questions about your trip to understand why you had such a good time, rather than instantly relating it back to themselves and have to talk equally about their vacation.  Most conversations are ping pong games; to the point that it is incredibly refreshing when you meet someone who just doesn’t feel a need to bring it back to them all the time.

My wife is one of the best people at listening and engaging people with probing questions. It is natural to her because she is genuinely interested in people.  She knows that there will be a time where the other person might want to learn about what our family did on our vacation.  But instead of doing the ping pong thing, she’ll be an active listener and want to truly understand the other person’s experience or perspective.  People will say that it is one of the qualities they admire most about her.

The ironic thing is most people that underperform with active listening do so because they are trying to make themselves more interesting.  And the best way they could accomplish their goal of being liked is the opposite approach.

8 Responses to “Perspectives on Quality of Life: Conversation with Dennis Ross about Active Listening”

  1. Martin Enthoven says:

    That is well put there. I admire people like Dennis Ross that check their ego at the door for the purposes of getting the best results possible. It seems he also lends a lot of dignity to people around him with that skill set.

  2. Kit Cooper says:

    Martin, thank you for your comment. Your insights are great and very valuable to everyone in the BLP community. I look forward to reading more.

  3. alexandra bond says:

    Wow — I love that quote by DeGaulle. So inspiring. I often find myself in conversations with people who immediately have to relate everything I said right back to their own experience. It can feel exhausting. It really is inspirational to read about such an accomplished person as Ross — and to realize how humble he also is. I find that many of your interviewees share this quality. Keep them coming, Mr. Cooper.

  4. Guy Harris says:


    Thank you for the perspective you share in this post. I have already sent a “tweet” about this post and written a brief comment about it in my blog. Great insights!

  5. Ellen Naylor says:

    Hi Kit,

    I just read about this in Guy’s blog who commented above. I think the reason active listening is so appreciated is the respect that this person gives in bring present for the other person. It is so rare that people really pick up on it. It’s a skill we are taught no where except through life’s experiences and choosing to listen generously.

    I imagine this is a key reason that Dennis Ross is such a skilled negotiator and his comments remind me of those by Bill Ury, Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, who has made a career of defusing conflicts around the world.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Gina Ryan says:

    Kit this is a beautiful post. I am so glad to see this up…I am going to really like coming back for more.
    As I work with women with eating disorders I find the single most important thing I do with and for them is to listen deeply and really hear them without judgment.
    Mahalo for sharing!

  7. Marc Wong says:

    Now you’ve made me curious about how your wife does it. Sometimes when someone says they’ve had a great conversation with you, it means you’ve allowed or encouraged them to talk about one of their passions. Personally I think it helps if you know some of the buzzwords and you can encourage them not to hold back for fear of boring you. Hm, I think I have an idea for a blog post! And BTW, I’ve written about active listening in an emotional support context on my blog.

  8. Thanks for these excellent insights into active listening – if it is good enough for one of the world’s top diplomats, then it is good enough for the rest of us.

    Just imagine how the world would change for the better if we all simply learnt to apply more active listening in our daily lives. People would feel more acknowledged and respected and this would have a ripple effect on the bigger picture.

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