How to Listen Like

How to listen like Barack Obama

July 6, 2021

How to listen like Barack Obama

3 ways the President is a good listener…and 1 not so much

Summary

  • Being a good listener has an impact on your relationships, likeability, and trustworthiness.
  • We analyze how Barack Obama is as a listener in his roles as President, State Senator, father, and Secret Service’s Renegade.
  • Tips are provided for being a better listener in real life scenarios.

Barack Obama is a born listener. No, really. He was literally born as a good listener. 

Obama recalled in a 2015 BBC interview, “You know there’s a place in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay, which is now a natural preserve. But it’s a beautiful coral reef, and my mother, she always says that the reason I’m calm is because when she was pregnant with me she used to go down to this bay and sit and listen to the water.” 

Listening ꟷ whether it’s to the waves or the person across the table from you right now – has a direct impact on our relationships, our engagements, and how we live our lives. Like Obama, listening can have a calming effect. Being a good listener can also bring on the benefits of building trust, likeability, and respect with those around you. 

President Barack Obama has held many prominent roles in his lifetime and a key part of his success is that he is an active listener. He gives his full attention to what he is hearing and tries to completely understand, and comprehend, what is being said. You don’t need to be the President of the United States to be a good listener, but you can pick up some helpful tips from him.

President Obama hailing a colleague


How Obama is a good listener as a State Senator

Obama spoke at Howard University's commencement ceremony on May 7, 2016. In his speech he stated, “Change requires more than just speaking out—it requires listening as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree and being prepared to compromise.” 

Obama shared the example of when he was working to pass Illinois's first racial profiling law as a State Senator. He had to engage and listen to law enforcement in order to build consensus around the law. Obama felt it was important to listen to the other side while also not compromising his own integrity and core values. He succeeded by following this advice, “If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they are wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

LISTEN UP!

When you’re having a conversation and disagree with the other person:


  • Try to discern the other person’s feelings by asking open-ended questions. And that don’t go something like “Are you crazy, you can’t really think that Starbucks is the best coffee, do you?” 
  • By acknowledging the other person’s point-of-view, you are not necessarily agreeing with them, but you are listening, understanding, and clarifying before automatically jumping in with your own thoughts.  


How Obama is a good listener as the President of the United States

While he was President, Obama received 65,000 letters each week from constituents across the country. He asked his staff to review the thousands of emails and handwritten notes and pick 10 of them that best represented the stories and concerns of everyday Americans. The President would then make it his goal to try to read and respond to these 10 letters each day. 

The letters resonated with Obama and he was known to have visited letter writers in their hometowns. He would often reference letters in his speeches because he had listened, and he remembered. Listening doesn’t always have to come in the verbal form. Words on a page can just as powerfully convey a message as words spoken out loud. 

President Obama giving a speech

LISTEN UP!

When you’re rapidly reading an email from one of your clients:


  • Your first instinct may be to already be forming a response in your head while you are simultaneously reading the note. Before your fingers touch the keyboard, give the email your full attention and actually listen to what your client is conveying. 
  • If you’re having trouble concentrating on the message, then try reading the text out loud. By listening to your own voice you will better be able to focus on what is being said – and really, who doesn’t like to listen to themselves talk! 


How Obama is a good listener as a Father

The dedication of Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land states “To Michelle — my love and life’s partner and Malia and Sasha — whose dazzling light makes everything brighter." When Malia was born, Barack made a promise to always put his family first. This is largely because his own father had been absent from much of his childhood. 

Book cover of A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The first word in Obama’s Twitter profile isn’t “President” but “Dad.” Obama always made a point of having dinner with his family every night during his time in the White House. In his book he discloses, “While serving as President, I made sure to have dinner with Michelle, Sasha, and Malia every evening by 6:30. We’d eat some good meals and catch up on our days. That was one of the best parts of living above the store, as I sometimes called it.” His intent to not only be present, but also engaged, shows that Obama made an ongoing effort to listen to his family.

LISTEN UP!

When you’re sharing a meal with your family, friend, or business associate:


  • Research shows that people who feel listened to are more likely to engage in future interactions with you. So use your body language to show that you are actively listening to your tablemates. Face the person who is speaking and maintain eye contact with them.
  • Remove anything from the table that will distract you from the conversation. Let’s be real, we’re talking about your cell phone. A simple fix to unplugging is to have everyone put their cell phones away. The first person to grab their phone must pay the bill or do an extra chore around the house.

How Obama is not a good listener as a Renegade

Picture of President Obama looking dismissive

Listening to authority can be a challenge even when you are the President of the United States. Obama’s Secret Service code name was Renegade. Occasionally Renegade would try to break free from the White House, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service. He would go on rogue missions for “normal people things” like getting a sandwich ꟷ often to the delight of nearby tourists. 

Challenges to authority happen everywhere from parenting of little kids to dealing with colleagues in the workplace. We often don’t want to listen when someone with power has control over us. And when you hold one of the highest offices in the land, it must be tricky to defy the Secret Service that is supposed to be keeping Renegade in line. 

LISTEN UP!

When your employee undermines your authority.


  • Many times, an employee just wants to be heard. One way to improve the situation is to look at it from the point of view of the difficult employee. Sit down and listen to what they have to say. 
  • Acknowledge the problem and let them know that you heard them. The best way to communicate this is to repeat back what they have told you. This clarifies to both parties that they are on the same page and then you can move forward together to fix the issue.


We all can’t be born a good listener like Obama, but we can grow at being one. Learning good listening skills doesn’t involve spending years of study and practice. It is a simple ability that takes minimal time and effort to excel at. By following these few tips and implementing them in your life you will naturally evolve into a better listener.

Oh, good you’re still with us! If you’ve made it this far, then you must be truly listening. 


Subscribe to our ioAudio email newsletter and get more listening tips straight to your inbox. Of course, you’ll give our emails your full attention and not run off for a sandwich like Obama. ioAudio’s “How to Listen Like” series shares ideas for how to be a better listener in relation to well-known individuals. Have a good listener we haven’t heard of? Comment below or Contact Us.

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