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. 

? Link to podcast:

Link to printable shownotes here. 


  • Summary
  • References & Links
  • Andrea’s Introduction
  • Interview Transcript
  • Andrea’s Conclusion



Strategies for Active Listening


  1. Be OTHER-focused – focus on the other person, not on yourself
  2. Focus on LEARNING – not on teaching or advising or sharing
  3. FOCUS! – avoid distractions and put away your phone
  4. ABSORB – as opposed to solving or resolving
  5. Track the RATIO – of you talking versus the other person talking


  1. SIGNAL that you’re listening – Use your body language. Look them in the eye. Nod your head.
  2. NEVER INTERRUPT! – People frequently pretend they are listening, but they’re really just waiting for their turn, for when they can jump in to make their point. 
  3. Ask QUESTIONS – When you DO talk, ask Qs 

Other Listening Insights from Norman BacalDr. Andrea with Breakdown by Norman Bacal

  • Managing by walking around. Walking the hallways and asking people questions is imperative to being a good manager.
  • One of the benefits of being a great listener is that you are helping the person solve their own problems. We could all do more of this, with our co-workers, with our partners, with our kids.
  • Small Talk Strategies:
    1. pretend you’re conducting an interview
    2. pretend this is your party and you’re the host


Narcissists are Non-listeners

There is a correlation between narcissism and non-listening.  However, narcissists will listen when they perceive the other person has power or authority. This means:

  • Clinical psychologists can’t use “non-listening “ to diagnose narcissism. The narcissist may be trying to impress the psychologist!
  • Early in a relationship, narcissists will listen to their prospective mates because they are trying to impress them. Many people had no idea that their partner was a narcissist until it is too late.


Some Advice from Norman Bacal on Developing Relationships with Clients

  • Again, ask questions. Here’s a great one: “What keeps you up at night?”
  • Meet your clients on their turf. Ask them for a tour of their facilities.  You will learn valuable insights about your client.
  • Encourage your client to share stories. Norman Bacal highlighted that this helps in two ways:
    1. it bonds you with your clients
    2. you will discover things you need to know about your client – to better serve them.
  • Communicating that we CARE is the most important thing that we need to communicate to our clients, our co-workers, our friends and our families. Listening is just part of that.



References & Links

Norman Bacal


Listening References 

Types of listening

Narcissism & listening

Active Listening

Julian Treasure TEDTalk


Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr Andrea’s Introduction

Well, hello there, Talk About Talk listeners. I’m your communication coach, Dr. Andrea Wojnicki. Please call me Andrea.  Thanks for listening to Talk About Talk.  My goal is to help you learn the communication skills that’ll catapult your career and enhance your relationships. 


I’m really excited about today’s episode.  Both the TOPIC and the GUEST EXPERT are… phenomenal – really. I promise you will learn a lot and you will even be entertained.  The topic is what I think is the #1 most important communication skill – LISTENING.  A few months ago when I was telling a friend that I want to do a podcast focused on how to improve your listening skills, she immediately said: I KNOW the guy.  It’s Norman Bacal. He’s the best listener I know.  And he’s also a great teacher. 


So I emailed Norman, then we spoke on the phone, and then we did the interview, – and here we are.  Now I’m a big Norman Bacal fan too.  Norman Bacal is a retired lawyer, who ran one of Canada’s biggest and most well-known law firms, Heenan Blaikie.  He is also a best-selling author, of both fiction and non-fiction.  So he is a great story-teller. In his non-fiction book called BREAKDOWN, he tells the story of how the law firm he built eventually – broke-down, and was forced to shut its doors.  This story is fascinating, regardless of whether you’re a lawyer. 


We are fortunate to have Norman Bacal for two episodes.  The first is this one on how to improve your LISTENING SKILLS.  Then there’s also an upcoming episode on TELLING YOUR STORY.


So why should you listen to this episode? Well, here’s what you will get out of it:

  • You’ll learn what the research says about how to become a better listener, a more active listener.  
  • You will hear some beautiful stories about how active listening can help you with both.
  • You will also learn from Norman Bacal some wise advice about how to manage clients and relationships


When I say the word COMMUNICATING, what do you think of first?  You probably think of someone talking, right? Well, – that’s exactly why listening, and particularly ACTIVE LISTENING is so important. 


As humans we have an innate desire to share our thoughts, our feelings, and our experiences with others.  But if it’s one way, then it’s not communicating, is it?  It’s just broadcasting.  Communication only happens when the content is decoded by the receiver, when we also listen and interpret the meaning.   And that’s challenging, since most of the time we are more interested in talking, and less interested in listening. 


So what can we do about these challenges that we are wired with?


As I was combing through the LISTENING research, I kept coming across lists of types of listening – and their definitions.  There’s empathic listening, passive listening, critical listening, biased listening, I could go on and on.  It might be helpful for you to learn and understand the types of listening.  If you’re interested, I included several links to references in the shownotes.


What I propose is more helpful though is that we focus on how to improve your listening skills in terms of strategies that fall into two categories:

(1.) our mindset when we are listening, what we are thinking about, and

 (2.) What we’re projecting.  In communication process parlance, that’s encoding.  Assuming we’re in a situation where active listening matters, whether it’s professional or personal, we can simply focus on these two things.


STRATEGIES for how to improve your listening skills – MINDSET

  1. Remember that we are wired to focus on ourselves, on what we ourselves are communicating, or encoding. You could say that we are wired to be myopic.  For example, when we ‘re meeting someone, we typically focus on our own name rather that the other person’s name.  That’s a big part of why we forget others’ names.  We weren’t listening! We were focused on ourselves.  Just knowing that we have this proclivity can be helpful.  SO try to be other-focused.
  2. Our mindset should ideally focus on Learning. Not sharing, not advising, not teaching, but learning, if you’re a Talk About Talk listener, you’re probably a life-long learner.  You’re probably intrinsically motivated to learn.  Well, consider the fact that you can learn way more by listening that you can by talking, right?  So shush and listen.
  3. Speaking of focusing on learning, Focus is also a big part of how to improve your listening skills. As in being mindful. As in no distractions. So Put your phone away.  Put your work away.  And listen to the conversation. 
  4. As you’re listening, your mindset should be on absorbing. This is related to the learning point. I just mentioned But specifically it means that we’re not solving or resolving.  We’re just listening.  You’ll hear Norman Bacal share a fantastic story in a minute about what can happen when you don’t try to solve others’ problems, when you’re just absorbing and listening.
  5. The last thing I’ll mention in terms of your mindset and listening is one of my favourites. It’s actually a listening hack. Track the RATIO of you talking vs the other person talking:.  As in what proportion of the conversation is you yakking, versus the other person?  As Epictetus, the Greek philosopher said: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”  And if you went to the Broadway play Hamilton, you may recall the famous line that Aaron Burr advised to Alexander Hamilton himself.  He said: Talk less, smile more. 


STRATEGIES for how to improve your listening skills – MINDSET:

  • Being other focused
  • Focusing on learning
  • Avoiding distractions and putting away our phones,
  • Absorbing as opposed to solving or resolving, and
  • Tracking the ratio of us talking versus the other person talking.


STRATEGIES for how to improve your listening skills – WHAT TO PROJECT

  • Signal that you’re listening – In other words, use your body language to tell the other person that you are listening. Face them.  Look them in the eye. Nod your head.
  • Never ever interrupt! (I have to say that I’ve gotten so much better at this since I started doing podcast interviews. If I interrupt than its almost impossible to hear what anyone is saying. And it’s impossible to edit.) If you look at the research  and advice on listening, you will quickly learn that people frequently pretend they are listening, but they’re really  just waiting for their turn, for the right moment, when they can jump in to make their point.  That’s why people interrupt.  That’s why people say, “That reminds me of a time when”.  We need to stop interrupting!
  • Ask Qs So while you attempt to listen more and talk less, when you DO talk, try to make more of your talking in the form of Qs.


So that’s the 3 things to project: Signalling you’re listening, not interrupting, and yes, asking lots of Qs. Got it?


Now I’m thrilled to introduce our guest expert to you.


Norman Bacal practiced law for over 35 years, during which he mentored two generations of young lawyers and built a major law firm from the ground up to one of the top firms in the country.


Over the course of his law career, he participated as a leader in the film and television production community in Canada and he worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest studios. He also served on boards of both public and private corporations and engaged in many charitable pursuits.


A few years ago he abandoned it all. It was time to reset, to learn the art of writing from scratch. In 2017, Norman published what is now a best-selling non-fiction book called Breakdown, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the law firm Heenan Blaikie. Subsequently Norman also wrote and published two fiction books. 


Norman Bacal is a great story-teller, and as it turns out, a great listener too.  And that is what we are talking about today.


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.


Well, there you are.  You can probably tell that I enjoyed that conversation with Norman very much.  I hope you did too! He’s a skilled communicator, isn’t he? 


Before I summarize some of Norman’s main points for us, I want to tell you what I found about the relationship between LISTENING and NARCISISM, which is an interesting Q, I think, that came up in the  interview. According to the research, (some of which you can find in the shownotes for this episode on the website), there is a strong correlation between narcissism and poor listening skills, or “non-listening” as the researchers call it. One of the headlines I read said that, “Narcissists are “habitual non-listeners”.”


I dug into the research and discovered some very interesting things about this relationship between narcissism and non-listening.  Narcissism is a bit of a buzzword lately and I feel like I could do a whole episode on this, but let me tell you just two things that you might also find interesting… And both of these points may help explain why Norman’s colleague who he described as a narcissist also appeared to be a good listener. So first, there’s the fact that psychologists can’t use  a lack of listening skills to diagnose narcissism, because narcissists do listen to people they consider as superior, who have authority, or who they are trying to impress – like say… a clinical psychologist, right?  And secondly, many people find themselves in LT relationships and they had no idea that their partner was a narcissist for the same reason – narcissists will listen to their prospective mates when they are trying to impress them.  But months or years later, when their guard is down, when the honeymoon’s over, the habitual non-listening can compromise or even destroy the relationship. 


Good to know, right?


Now let me briefly summarize some of Normans main points.  First, you probably noticed that Norman provided  some vivid examples of the benefits of some of the “how to improve your listening” strategies that I listed at the beginning of this episode, including, for example, the significance of:


  • Paying attention. Focusing on the other person and what they’re saying – with both their words and with their body language.  And once again, Norman reminds us: Put Your Device Away.  Except maybe for the phone calls from your partner whom, as he said, you are going home to and who knows not to call unless its urgent.  I love that point.
    • Speaking of paying attention, Norman also reminded us that we can’t listen if we’re distracted. And studies have shown that we can’t listen and read at the same time –and we can’t possibly absorb. That has implications not only for us in terms of our listening, but also for the presentations that we are giving.
  • Norman’s take on the ratio of talking versus listening was an interesting one, I thought. He said that things we have to say simply aren’t that interesting. 
  • Then there was the point about not interrupting – Norman calls it the 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. Because what I have to say is paramount.
  • And Norman was crystal clear that asking Qs is a great strategy for how to improve your listening skills. Asking Qs was one of the main strategies that Norman used with his clients. And you may have noticed that he asks insightful, open-ended Qs, like “what keeps you up at night.” What a great Q to ask your client, right?


Norman also shared some other advice about developing relationships with clients:

  • Like meeting them on their Not only that, asking for a tour of their facilities!  That is how you will learn more about your client.
  • The important thing is to get your client to tell stories. Norman highlighted that this helps in two ways: One, it bonds you with your clients. And two, you will discover things you need to know about your client – to better serve them. Great advice!


Other advice for how to improve your listening skills that Norman shared include:

  • Managing by walking around. He said that walking the hallways and asking people Qs is imperative to being a good manager.
  • He also highlighted that one of the benefits of being a great listener is that you are helping the person solve their own problems. Do you remember the story of how he couldn’t think of how to solve a colleague’s relationship problem with another partner?  And how that actually turned out to be a good thing, because talking it through made the partner understand exactly what he needed to do? 
    • We could all do more of this, right?  With our co-workers, with our partners, with our kids?  Stop solving and start listening!!! 
  • And Norman also shared 2 strategies for how to be better at small talk. Do you remember what they are? I’ll give you a hint – they are two ways of coming up with Qs during small talk that will get the other person talking.  The first is to pretend you’re conducting an interview and the 2nd is to pretend this is your party and you’re the host.


The very last point of Norman’s that I want to leave you with is something that really resonated with me in terms of managing clients and also in terms of developing stronger relationships – not just professionally but also personally. Norman said that “listening is part of it, part of what’s important.“  But what is IT?  What is it that we need to communicate to our clients, our co-workers, our friends and our families?  Its CARING.  Communicating that we CARE


GREAT point!  We have to communicate that we care.  And listening is part of that.  Well put.


Alright that’s it for this episode.


Thank you again to Norman Bacal, for sharing his time, his experiences, and his expertise with us!


As I mentioned at the very beginning of this episode, Norman will be back for another episode focused on TELLING YOUR STORY.  In that conversation, you’ll hear amazing advice on a wide range of themes related to this theme of telling your story, including telling the story of your career and how to position yourself professionally, the power of metaphors, the process of writing non-fiction versus fiction, and lots more.


Trust me, you don’t want to miss this upcoming episode.  There are two ways that you can make sure you get it when it comes out.  You can Subscribe to the TalkAboutTalk podcast.  That way, every two weeks, the newest episode will automatically show up for you. It’s so easy!  Just go the TAT website and click on PODCAST. You’ll see links there that make it easy to find Talk About Talk on your favourite podcast player.

You can also sign up for the TalkAboutTalk weekly email newsletter.  This newsletter is full of tips and learnings all focused on communication skills.  I also provide updates on newly released podcast episodes and even some behind the scenes stuff. So if you’re only listening to the podcast and not getting the newsletter, you’re missing out on half the learnings! 


Got it? Truthfully? I hope you will both subscribe to the podcast and sign up for the email newsletter.  That would make me very happy!


Alright, I hope you feel inspired and informed about becoming a better listener. 


THANKS for listening – and READING!




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