Listen Like You’re Not a Serial Killer

David Layton

David / 16 March 2020

Active Listening is the most important leadership skill, and sometimes the best example to learn from is a bad one. So here, I present to you, my favourite example of a poor listener, the prison interview of serial killer, Paul Bernardo.

Although best known for committing a series of rapes in Scarborough, Ontario between 1987 and 1990 and subsequently committing three brutal murders, to me, he is foremost an atrocious listener. I honestly don’t know what his then-wife, who helped him commit these heinous crimes, ever saw in him.

It’s a long watch, and the video is a bit grainy, but I feel I’ve learned so much about being an active listener from watching it.


Not Active Listening

Just jump through the video a bit. Notice how he looks around the room while people are speaking to him. He cleans under his fingernails. He’s clearly only thinking of what he is going to say next. All things I’ve seen people do in meetings many times in my professional life. And when you do these things, this is what you look like, a serial rapist and murderer.

Let that sink in. Think about that the next time you are meant to be listening to someone. Actually don’t---think about what they are saying to you. Don’t be like this guy.

Active Listening Skills

Avoid Grooming or Physically Examining Yourself

In. Any. Way. It’s not the time or the place when you are meant to be listening to someone. The main challenge of being an active listener is focusing on that one task: listening — not picking at your ears, nose, or fingernails; playing with your hair; tonguing an ulcer in your mouth. In fact, never even think about your tongue, it’s distracting.

Engaging in any of these activities sends one message: that whatever is underneath your nails, or in you mouth, or ears, or whatever, is more important to you, than this conversation. That’s why Paul is doing it in this video. He’s actively trying to be a jerk. He is in prison. You are not. This is his only entertainment. He wants the interviewers to feel belittled. Don’t be like Paul.

Continuously Show Interest

Maintain eye contact with the person speaking, but don’t stare. We aren’t trying to establish dominance. Look away every few seconds, but briefly. Just connect with the person and let them know you are still paying attention. Don’t start examining the contents of the room. Is this table IKEA? Have I read any of the books on yonder bookcase? Focus.

Occasionally nod or utter a muted “yes” or an “uh-huh” just to let them know you are still listening and not bored. We all like a little reassurance to keep going when we’re speaking. For extra fun, seem enthused, particularly if you are, and watch the speakers mood adjust to yours.

Only Think About What They ARE Saying

When someone else speaks, it conjures up all sorts of thoughts and emotions. Something the other person says might be factually untrue, it may offend you, it may remind you that you left the oven on at home. But slow down and let them finish. Don’t interrupt or wonder off to some other place in your mind.

It’s not easy, but first seek to understand, then to be understood. If you need time later in the conversation to think about your responses, you can pause during your turn to speak. It’s not as awkward as it sounds. In fact, once you establish this pace, the other person will likely mirror you and more actively listening as well.

Probably the hardest thing putting your emotions to one side as they speak. Paul is a psychopath, so he doesn’t have this problem. He, in all likelihood, doesn’t experience emotions when someone else is speaking (or ever). But if you’re not a psychopath (like 99% of the population), you are going to have to learn to let those emotion pass and keep listening anyway.

When it’s your turn to speak, you can — if you choose, address how it made you feel. Often such discussions can clear up misunderstandings or illuminate the nuance of the speaker’s intent.

As always, let me know what you think on social media or the comments below. I’d love to hear about times when the way your co-workers listened, or rather didn’t listen, and made you question their humanity at some basic level.