Listen, as Norman Bacal, author, consultant, and 35 year legal veteran, shares his insights and stories about how active listening can help you not only learn, but also improve your relationships with co-workers, clients, family, and friends.  You will learn strategies for active listening, including the ideal mindset for listening, what to project, how narcissists are (sometimes) non-listeners, tips on small talk, as well as advice on developing relationships with clients. 


References & Links

Norman Bacal


Listening References 

Types of listening

Narcissism & listening

Active Listening

Julian Treasure TEDTalk


Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much, Norman, for joining us here today to talk about listening.

Norman Bacal: Oh, thanks, Andrea.

AW: I have a question for you to start with regarding the significance of listening. How would you say listening ranks in terms of significance in effective communication versus all the other skills that we can acquire to become effective communicators?

NB: I don’t think anything else comes close to listening, because most people talk because they want to be heard. And it’s a very tough skill, because most people would prefer to be speaking than to be listening. We all want to be heard. We all want to feel we count, which is naturally at odds with listening to someone else’s point of view, and then allowing it to have an impact on your own.

AW: What other communication skills do you think might be almost as important – or next on the list?

NB: Reading visual cues is really important. So sometimes it isn’t what people say. It’s the way that they say it. The way that they’re sitting in their chair. Sometimes it’s the way that they walk into the room that tells you much more about what they have to say than what’s coming out of their mouth. I think there’s a huge issue relating to subtext. Very often the conversation we need to be having isn’t the conversation we’re having.

AW: This takes me to the definition of listening, because some people would say that perceiving or decoding the information that the encoder has provided, is actually listening – whether it’s verbal, oral communication or nonverbal communication, right?

NB: That’s right. There’s so much in a conversation that isn’t being said. So for example, the way you nod your head when I’m speaking, is giving me a signal that what I’m saying is resonating. Or if I’m speaking and you’re rolling your eyes at me, it’s telling me you probably think I’m completely bullshitting you or you’re angry at me. And it’s really important when you’re speaking to be reading the other person, because communication isn’t just about having words come out of your mouth, even though some people believe that. It’s about discovering whether the other person is actually open to hearing what you have to say. Of course, it’s much easier to say in theory than to actually live through it. And I know through countless exchanges I’ve had with people that have failed. But ultimately, there are so many, not only verbal, but non-verbal parts of the exchange that are happening. And of course, that can only happen when you’re face to face. It becomes much more difficult when you’re doing this over the phone and trying to decode. And it’s pretty much impossible when it’s by text.

AW: So assuming we’re talking about verbal communication then, what does it mean to be an effective listener?

NB: That is a loaded question.

AW: It is.

NB: I can probably explain it through an example. It’s my first year as managing partner of Heenan Blaikie. And when you’re the managing partner, people walk into your office with their problems pretty regularly. If they’re comfortable. I had one partner walk in one day. Plops himself down across from me. And I’d known him for many years. And he starts telling me this tale of another partner who’s making his life miserable. And they’re in another office. And as he’s talking, the only thing going on in my mind is: I have no idea how I’m going to help. Like, I just, I just have no idea. It’s a tough one. I’m like, maybe I’ll go speak to the other partner afterwards. But I don’t think that’s going to work. And he must have spent half an hour in my office describing the problem and his great unhappiness with how this was impacting on his life. And I was sitting there thinking the whole time, I am a failure, I cannot do this job. I cannot be the managing partner of a firm because I have no idea how to solve problems like this. I went home that night and I told my wife and I just unloaded. She didn’t have any particular advice for me on that one. But she said, Listen, it’s, you know, it’s part of the job.

AW: She said, Listen? Ha ha.

NB: No, she said, just to know I was listening… I was able to relay exactly what he said. I was listening pretty carefully, but I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to help him. When he left he left just you know, his shoulders sagged, he looked depressed, walking out the door. And I felt like my shoulders should be sagging too, as I’m walking out the door, and probably they were. He called me a week later from the other office. And he said, Norm, I just wanted to let you know how great you are at your job. I almost fell off the back of my chair, like, What are you talking about? He said, I came in to see you last week, and I needed to unload. I had this problem. And as you were listening to me, it became quite clear to me that the only person that could solve this problem was me. And I knew you couldn’t. That’s not your job. I have a problem with a partner, I need to go deal with it. And once I heard those words coming out of my mouth, it became clear to me what I had to do and I’m going to do it. I just wanted to let you know, I really appreciated the fact that you sat there and listened to me blather on for half an hour about this. And that was the day the light bulb went off. That sometimes the process of just giving someone an ear is enough. That’s all you need to be doing and it’s not a failure. In fact, it’s a sign of success.

AW: Hmm. So one of the benefits, or positive outcomes, of being a great listener is that we can help people solve their own problems. What are some of the other benefits or reasons why I might want to be a good listener?

NB: The things we have to say just aren’t that interesting. Most people are most comfortable speaking about themselves. Fortunately, and this is just my makeup. I don’t feel the great need to talk about myself. And when I do talk about myself, part of my brain is feeling uncomfortable, like I’m going on a little bit too long. I’d rather be listening than talking to start with, so it’s not like I’m this genius that has figured something out. I just naturally prefer to be listening than to be speaking. I’ve seen people at the other end of the spectrum, and you can read it in their eyes. As you’re speaking to them. They’re already formulating their next argument. And that sometimes happens to me – none of us are perfect. But if you’re busy formulating how you’re going to respond. that generally leads to interrupting syndrome – like I can’t let you finish. What I have to tell you is just so important that you just need to stop speaking now and listen to me. And you can feel it. And they don’t realize they’re not listening to you.

AW: It makes people feel bad when you interrupt them, right? Like, you must not value them.

NB: Yes. Listen, I interrupt people much more often than I wish I did. But every time you interrupt, you’re basically telling them, I don’t need to hear what you have to say. Because what I have to say is paramount. So you’re pretty much dissing them.

AW: So I’m really intrigued by what you said about the fact that you have this belief that maybe what you’re saying isn’t as interesting or important as other people and that this is an intrinsic thing that you have – a natural way of being. Is that related to being an introvert?

NB: I don’t know if it’s related to being an introvert. It might be. But the reality is, my makeup is I don’t want to bore you. And I know if I’m going on too long with a story, there’s a risk that at a point in time you’ve clicked off. It happens to me mostly when I talk about writing, because I find actually people have had no interest in what I did is a lawyer and so I rarely talk about it. Because if I tried to explain to you what I was doing on a deal, your eyes would fog over pretty quickly. So I just never bothered. But when I talk about writing, writing is something lots of people think – God I wish I could write or maybe I should do it, or how do I do it? So it’s something I like to talk about, because I think it actually ties into this secret desire, we all have, to write. But I’m very conscious when I’m speaking, that maybe the audience is sitting there saying, Okay, enough already with your writing.

AW: back to what you said about being concerned that you say might be boring people. Do you think that listening has to do with the ego? I’m wondering if people who are very egocentric, maybe it’s the interrupters, who are taking up too much of the conversation?

NB: People who are egocentric like to talk – that is my experience. They like to talk. They like to be the center of attention. They like to put on a show. I have lived for many years with a partner who is just like Donald Trump. There’s certain characteristics of people who have high degrees of narcissism. All tied to – it’s all about me. And I know you have to be at least as interested in me and my stories as I am, and therefore I’m going to tell you all of them.

AW: I am –  when we’re done this interview – going to check, I’m sure (99% sure) that someone’s done the research on listening skills and narcissism.

NB: Oh, okay.

AW: Don’t you think there’s got to be probably a correlation?

NB: One of the greatest narcissists I’ve ever met…

AW: Greatest narcissist? Haha.

NB: Yes.

AW: Most extreme narcissist?

NB: Yeah. Well, he’s got some greatness to him. And he’s also got some huge character flaws. He’s like a character out of a novel. He is also the best listener I’ve ever known.

AW: Really?

NB: Yeah. One on one. He is the best listener. I’ve learned listening skills from him. He will not ever interrupt you. He will listen. He will take notes to what you’re saying. He will wait till you’re finished and then he will start.

AW: He may be so manipulative though that he’s conscious of that?

NB: No. He’s genuine. I’ve seen him in enough situations. It is genuine. He’s genuine and a very successful business person, probably as a result.

AW: Well, let’s dig into developing listening skills. In your book. Breakdown, you say, “for four years, I observed Jean Potvin at work. He was a master. He taught me the value of listening.” Can you share with the Talk About Talk listeners, what exactly did he teach you?

NB: Apart from anything else, he took me to every meeting he went to. Normally when you’re the kid at the bottom of the totem pole, you don’t go to meetings. How does anybody expect you to learn? I just kind of scratch my head. That was something I insisted on when I became more senior. But he would get clients in a room and he’d get them talking about their stories, which did two things. One, it bonded him to the clients. And second, he found out the things he needed to know about them – to better serve them. So there wasn’t a direct line between what he was asking them and the legal work they wanted to hire him for. But it gave him information. Perhaps some context to be able to serve them better.

AW: I am so conscious of interrupting you now… So you learned from that the value of asking people to tell their stories and you also learned, I guess from him being a great role model, how you could then become a manager and help bring someone up. What else did you learn?

NB: Well, he wasn’t the only one teaching me. There were a number of mentors who went out of their way to make me a better lawyer. Three come to mind. Jean was one of them. Richard Lewin was a second, and Danny Levinson who was third. Danny and Richard worked very hard on my writing skills. Yeah, for that I’m eternally grateful. They made me become a lot more precise. For Jean, it was about his skill with people. Jean was the master in dealing with people.

AW: and a master listener?

NB: And a master listener. But he just had this elegance and grace about him. But I observed – it’s funny because you learn things not only from people who do things well, you also learn things from people who become negative role models – where it’s in a meeting with either a bad listener, constantly interrupting, or lawyers who introduce themselves to clients and spent the first five minutes talking about their qualifications. And I said, Okay, I’m never doing that, because you’d watch the clients, their eyes would glaze over. What I learned in terms of client service was it’s about paying attention to them, finding out what their needs are, finding out as much as you possibly can about their business objectives. When I advanced to become the leader of the firm, one of my roles was going out and meeting with the CEOs of the businesses we represented. And I would never have them come to my office. We had one huge worldwide drug manufacturer. I went to visit them and took the tour as to how they manufactured one of their drugs. I was the first lawyer they’d ever dealt with that took the plant tour. And if you don’t think I didn’t own them after that meeting! Not only that, in the course of our discussions, I found out three or four things about the company that none of our lawyers knew, none of any of their lawyers knew, because they use multiple law firms. So we had a huge jump. I’d come back to the office and say, Okay, here are three issues we didn’t know about. Let’s get to work, and we’re respond to them immediately before… the client still hasn’t identified them as problems, but they’re going to be problems.

AW: Wow, very proactive – directly based on your listening.

NB: It wasn’t just listening. I mean, listening is part of it. It’s part of what I’d say – the larger category is… caring. Particularly if you’re in the service business, it’s more than empathy. It’s showing that you actually care about them and their businesses and their problems. I used to go visit CEOs and my first question would be okay, what’s keeping you up at night? It’s not about are we doing great service and please give me compliments or criticisms to take back. It’s what are you not able to identify to anybody else? Or maybe even to yourself that’s bothering you?

AW: In a similar vein, you said, “There are no secrets in a small office. One simple technique worked well. I listened.” And you were talking about when you were a managing director, and I think you were going out to the Calgary office, and you said that the only thing really on your agenda, there were some people that you need to touch base with formally, but your main objective was to walk around, meet people, talk and listen.

NB: Yes, I kind of happened into it. It’s not like I went out there with a strategy. But ultimately, after few years, it became a strategy. I realized it.

AW: brilliant.

NB: But simple. There’s no magic to this. It’s just you walk around you talk to people, they’re going to talk to you.

AW: Yeah, it’s simple. But … You said that it wasn’t a strategy that you had on your to do list. But it feels like it’s not being productive. It’s a quote-unquote, soft skill. But it’s critical, right?

NB: I always felt that even in the big offices, that walking the halls was critical.

AW: What I’m hearing, though (and this may be readily apparent to other people, but I hadn’t really thought about this before explicitly), is that when you are proactively explicitly listening, there’s the content of the message that you’re hearing. But then there’s also other side effects that are happening that are that are more important. More important than the content of the message, and it’s the fact that someone feels like they’re being heard?

NB: yes.

AW: So I’m hearing that we can establish ourselves and the benefits of being a great listener by walking around and asking people to share their stories, to share their thoughts, to tell us what keeps them up at night. Also, by not interrupting. And as you said before, by not assuming what I have to say is the most important thing. Rather preferring to listen to what the other person has to say because it might be more interesting. Are there any other do’s and don’ts that you can share with people about listening skills and things to work on that might make us better listeners?

NB: Something I can sometimes be quite weak at is paying attention. You know, we talked about listening but it’s not always easy to stay engaged. And I’m sometimes the worst culprit. I find that my attention sometimes wanes. And the other thing and you just pointed out to me is – put your device away. There’s nothing that hurts more, whether they admit it or not, in the middle of a conversation, than to respond to a text or ring. Because when you think about it, if it was anything else, you wouldn’t take it.

AW: right. It is offensive. I’ve been in meetings where people have pulled out phones. And I think, to the credit of the person that’s running the meeting, they actually stopped the meeting. And I’ve also been in personal conversations where someone has picked up their phone and I’ve said, do you need a minute?

NB: There you go. I mean, that’s, that’s when people do it. And the problem is, it’s become socially acceptable. I’m guilty of it sometimes, too. I have a rule whenever I’m out with anyone, if my wife calls I say, I’m, I am going to interrupt that because she and I have a rule. She’s not going to call me…

AW: You let them know in advance?

NB:  I’ll warn them in advance and say, listen, the only call I will take is from my wife. They can accept it or not. In the end, she’s the one I’m going home to!

AW: Some of my friends that have that rule about their kids. And we will be in a restaurant and they’ll say the only person I’ll pick-up for is my kids and then the kids keep calling and calling and calling and I’m like, you need to tell your kid that unless it’s an emergency. they’re not valuing your time.

NB: So the devices are the biggest problem, biggest communication problem today.

AW: I agree. I agree and it is becoming so socially acceptable. But the truth is we can’t track two conversations, right? I mean, I don’t know anyone that can read a conversation on their phone and be engaged in a verbal dialogue effectively.

NB: Something I learned from a speech coach: studies have shown that you cannot listen and read at the same time – and you can’t possibly absorb. So if I put a slide up on the screen while I’m talking, you’re either listening to me, or you’re reading the screen, but you’re not doing both. More likely than not, you’re not doing either. So if you’re going to put a slide up, wait till you finish speaking, tell people what they should be looking at on the screen and then shut up and let them read it.

AW: That is such great advice. And I’m thinking also sometimes there’s just an image instead of words so that you can look at an image that may be reinforcing the words that you’re hearing, but

NB: exactly

AW:  it’s like, we’ve taken this now to the context of listening as someone who’s in an audience, right? But it’s actually the same thing. You can’t listen if you’re distracted.

NB: That’s right.

AW: Let’s shift gears then to listening and small talk. I wanted to ask you this because you said in the book a few times that you struggle with small talk, which really surprised me, because you’re not socially awkward. I can tell the listeners that. And you are a fantastic listener. In fact, that’s how I met you. I told someone who we know in common that I wanted to interview someone who’s a great listener and your name came to her mind immediately. How is it that we can reconcile that you’re not great at small talk, and yet you are a great listener?

NB: Some tricks that I learned. The most important, and I teach this one, particularly to students and young lawyers: you will inevitably be in a cocktail party situation, could be the person sitting next to you at the table and you’re stuck with them for dinner, or you walk up to someone at a party and that person is a stranger. The whole idea of walking up to them is something you don’t want because how are you going to start what you’re going to say? My wife taught me two things. First, is pretend you’re conducting an interview. That you’re the Interviewer we’re most worried about exposing ourselves, telling our story, not boring the other person. But if we walk up to the other person, and we start asking them questions about themselves, they’re talking about their favorite subject and makes them feel immediately at ease. She said, If you do that, they’ll walk away saying you’re the most interesting person in the world, and they will have learned nothing about you. And it is inevitably true. People, when you get them talking about themselves, they start feeling a comfort level with you. And you don’t necessarily – you can choose to give up something about your life, but you don’t have to. In the end, they will think you’re very interesting.

AW: So when I was an undergrad student, and I was on the job market, I went to a seminar and the person said something very similar. They said, the ratio of the conversation where you’re talking versus where the other person’s talking can often dictate how they’ll feel about you. So make it your objective to get the interviewer to talk more and for you to talk less because they’ll like you more. And I kind of made it a game in my mind. I found it kind of fun, too, I think as a 21-22 year old naive undergraduate student, I’m thinking I need to tell them how great I am. I need to fill all the silence with my accomplishments, right? And actually, I should have been listening to what they had to say about the company and …

NB: My wife was the master of the interview, she went for 10 interviews got 10 job offers, because she was able to do this. It took me a lot longer to figure it out. And I said, there were two. The second in terms of getting through those moments is to imagine that you’re having a dinner party at your house and a stranger walks in the door. And what’s the first thing you do? Well as the host, you welcome them,

AW: you engage them in conversation.

NB: Engage them in conversation, you don’t think twice about it. So imagine you’re in this room where you need to meet people. You got to get through the evening. And the simple skill I learned was: just pretend this is your party, not someone else’s, and walk up to some people who look particularly alienated and just pretend you’re the host. So same thing you end up asking them about themselves. You start a conversation with anybody. Three minutes. I mean, the other thing I tell people is generally easier to hunt in pairs, not on your own. So you go to one of these things with a friend, you can’t brag about yourself, but your friend can and vice versa. If somebody puts their arm around you and said, Did you know that Norm did this? It’s a conversation opener.

AW: I may have been involved in some of those scenarios at various cocktail parties. Yeah, I remember that. It’s like, I don’t really want this job. But I know you do. I’m your wing man. I’ll talk about how great you are!

NB: Exactly.

AW: I love it. Is there anything else that you can advise people about small talk?

NB: Again, better to approach it by asking questions. And as soon as I understood that, it got me over the hump and then ultimately they’ll start asking you questions and then you’re fine.

AW: So your asking questions comment actually is bringing me full circle, because when I asked you the question about what other communication skills may be almost as important as listening, in my mind, I was thinking actually asking questions could be that skill. But perhaps asking questions is listening?

NB:  Yes.

AW: So it’s saying that the second most important communication skill is part of listening?

NB: It’s a strategy.

AW:  Okay. Fair enough. Is there anything else you want to add about listening and how we can become more effective listeners?

NB: Why don’t you talk to me about what you think about listening?

AW: Haha. Humour.

NB: There you go.

AW: Okay, so now we’re going to move on to the five rapid fire questions that I asked every guest.

NB: Okay, sure.

AW: The first question is, what are your pet peeves?

NB: For me? The biggest one is waiting in lines. I think I’m a patient person. I describe myself as a patient person. But put me in a line or in traffic and I become a very impatient person.

AW: Why do you think that is? Is it because you’re wasting time?

NB: I can’t explain it. It’s because I think at heart I’m a very impatient person. I’m trying to be patient.

AW: okay. Second question. What type of learner are you? Visual? Auditory? Kinesthetic? or some other kind of learner?

NB: To really learn, I need to go through the experience myself. And I learned this particularly in karate, I had to actually do it. And I had to do it wrong 10 times and had to have somebody watch me and say no, move your fingers four degrees, and you then you when you feel it, when you’re throwing somebody by just grabbing their fingers and flipping them backwards–my thumb and my two fingers can take hold up your wrist, and I can flip it over on your back– if I get it exactly the right way. But until you’ve experimented with it, there’s no way ,there’s no way to figure that out.

AW: So you’re a kinesthetic learner? Does that mean that you can’t learn vicariously when it comes to, I don’t know…

NB: I can’t learn how to write by reading.

AW: There you go.

NB: I have to learn to write by writing – and then the light bulb goes off. Or I have this moment and writing is the most unbelievable experience when it happens to you. I’ll be writing and suddenly the characters have taken over the scene. And I’m just a scribe. I’m just writing down what they’re saying and what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. Because it isn’t me anymore. They’re in some part of my brain.

AW: That’s how I feel when I’m painting and I get into flow.

NB: There you go.

AW: Okay, question number three, introvert or extrovert?

NB: Unquestionably introvert. I prefer to listen than to talk. I’m not sure if it’s a skill or a deficiency. I have learned many coping skills. I’m generally a shy person. I’ve learned how to cope. I’ve learned how to speak. And I’ve read Susan Cain’s book on this too.

AW: Quiet?

NB:  Quiet, which made me feel much better. You can learn the skills to cope, but at heart I would just assume be sitting quietly, reading a book, then engaged in a long conversation with someone.

AW: Question number four: communication preference for personal conversations?

NB: When I’m in a rush, I text. I try and avoid social media to communicate with people. I only do that when I have no other way of getting in touch with them. My strong preference is face to face because you can read the eyes and I think frankly, texting is terrible. So unless I’m texting you – I’ll meet you here at this hour. Generally I’m headed for disaster.

AW: Okay. What about phone?

NB: Phone is fine, but nothing, nothing beats face to face, right? Nothing. Particularly if I want something. If I want something, if I want to achieve something, I will never do it by email. I will never do it by text. I will occasionally do it by phone, but it won’t nearly be as successful as sitting down face to face. And because then you can feel me.

AW: And the last Rapid Fire question. Is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you recommend the most?

NB: No.   I’m not, I’m not doing  podcasts yet. No.

AW: but what about email newsletters?

NB: I hate them.

AW: Oh, really?

NB: Yeah.

AW: So where do you find out about great books to read?

NB:  A fair amount of word of mouth. Sometimes I’ll just go I’ll go TPL and hit their choices. Like I’m not moved by ads and stuff like that.

AW: Thank you very much for your time and your expertise Norman.

NB: Alright, thanks.


THANKS for listening – and READING!




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