Many years ago, I learned the “EAR” listening method. It’s simple and effective, and it has since served my clients and me well.

  • E stands for “Explore.”
  • A stands for “Acknowledge.”
  • R stands for “Respond.”

How Does the EAR Method Work?

The EAR method comprises three steps that should generally be carried out in sequence.

  1. Start by exploring the other person’s position by asking open-ended questions, such as “What do you think?” “How do you see it?” and “Can you share examples with me?”
  2. Next, move to acknowledgment. Confirm your understanding of what they think is important: “So if I understand you . . . Is that accurate?” “So your main concern is . . . Is that right?”
  3. After the person confirms that you understand what matters to him or her, respond.

Why is the EAR Method so Effective?

Here’s what it does:

  1. It improves the quality of your response. Following the EèAèR sequence will give you the information and the time to craft a nuanced, intelligent response that you would not be able to formulate if you were shooting from the hip.
  2. At the psychological level, the E and the A—exploring and acknowledging—combine to create a receptive environment for communication. Think about how you’ve felt when someone took the time to hear your point of view and showed they’d paid attention and understood. You felt pretty good, didn’t you?
  3. The EAR method eliminates perhaps the number one culprit in relationship breakdown: the erroneous assumption. Far too often, we jump to the response, basing it on what we assume about the other person. We shouldn’t be surprised that our response elicits a negative reaction—its inaccuracy offends the other person, who feels misunderstood.

What Are Some Common Applications of the EAR Method?

Although the EAR method is useful in essentially all exchanges, it’s especially so in the following:

  • Building relationships. If you have a boss, a coworker, or someone else with whom it’s in your interest to create a positive relationship, find a subject of interest to them and apply the EAR method. Explore the subject, including why it matters to him or her. Acknowledge what you’ve learned by confirming your understanding. Then respond with what that subject means to you.
  • Corrective action. Too often, when employees behave in ways we don’t like, we assume it’s their fault and move to disciplinary action. A better approach is to suspend judgment and explore the employee’s perspective—what he or she thinks happened, including the causes, reasons, and results. Acknowledge or confirm your understanding, and then respond. In this way, you may avoid an unnecessary and counterproductive disciplinary response by learning information that gives you a more nuanced view. Even if your response is ultimately disciplinary, it will be tailored to the circumstances and the employee will more likely accept it as fair.
  • Conflict resolution. In my view, most conflicts rest on a foundation that’s less substance than style. It’s not a matter of irreconcilable positions; rather, it’s interaction breakdown. When you explore the other person’s position, including the underlying bases and causes, you’ll often discover common ground. Even if the conflict is rooted in substance, taking an EAR approach creates an opportunity to manage it going forward.
  • Meeting protocol. When was the last time you attended an unproductive meeting? You probably witnessed a lot of talking and not much listening. The extroverts competed with their Rs or responses while the introverts kept their ideas and insights to themselves. Make the EAR part of your meeting protocol and observe how extroverts become more collaborative and introverts become more engaged.
  • Substitute for cross-examination. Sometimes we listen in order to pounce. That’s cross-examination, which typically involves closed-ended, yes-or-no questions: Isn’t it true that…? But it also can involve open-ended questions: Why did you screw up again? Cross-examination really consists of statements masquerading as questions. They’re not inquisitive; they’re adversarial. The EAR method will help you avoid this practice, which is a good thing (unless you’re litigating). The EAR method shows that you’re genuinely interested in learning what someone else thinks and why they think the way they do.

What Are Some Common Missteps?

In years of coaching people, I’ve observed the following missteps:

  1. Spending insufficient time in the E or exploring step. Before you move to the acknowledge step, make sure the other person has shared everything he or she thinks is meaningful. Use questions such as “What else?” or “Anything else?”
  2. Skipping the A or acknowledgement step. Some people have a tendency to jump from exploring to responding. As a result, they rely on assumptions in their Rs. Don’t neglect the A for acknowledgement. It’s the EAR, not the ER (or err) method.
  3. Succumbing to a hard-wired R habit. Some people have Pavlovian Rs: When a topic arises, they automatically respond. No questions. They may think they’re listening when in reality they’re focused on their own responses. To combat this tendency, it’s helpful to mentally prepare yourself before the conversation begins. It can be useful to keep a small sticky note in the palm of your hand with the EAR steps spelled out, especially when you are about to engage in a challenging conversation. Awareness of your own potential to derail the EAR process will reduce the risk of it happening.

What Are Some Variations on the EAR Method?

Although it’s useful to follow the method consciously until it becomes natural, don’t hesitate to customize it to fit your communication style.

Sometimes I start with the A. I find this useful in emotionally tense situations when I already have a good idea of why the other person is upset: “The first thing I’d like to do is make sure I understand your position. Tell me if this is accurate…”

Another variation involves providing an R before completing the EA. At the outset or in the course of the discussion, I’ll sometimes provide responses to help organize or provide structure to the discussion: “As you know, my position is . . . However, what I’d like to do now is explore your view of the matter.” “I think it would be helpful if we focused on . . . What do you think?”

The EAR process isn’t a rigid, mechanical tool. Rather, it’s an approach to keep you other-focused, as opposed to self-focused, and maximize the likelihood that you will have a constructive conversation.

When Should I Get Started?

That’s easy—your very next conversation! Here’s an opening you can use at home: “Hi honey, what’s the highlight of your day so far?”