How to Listen Like

How to listen like Ellen Degeneres

October 29, 2021

How to listen like Ellen Degeneres

The talk show host is a good listener except when it comes to a little matter involving the White House


  • Being a talk show host means being a good listener.
  • We take a look at how Ellen DeGeneres listens as a boss, comedian, friend, and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree.
  • Suggestions for being a thoughtful listener plus some dashes of humor.

Hosting a talk show isn’t all about, well, talking. 

It is also about being able to improv. And making guests comfortable. And most of all -- it is about listening. 

Take Kelly Clarkson for instance. Before Kelly launched her talk show in 2019, she was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and looking for hosting advice. Kelly admitted to Ellen that she needed a little practice when it came to listening to her guests. “I do need to learn - and I have been watching your show, I've seen tons of it. I watch all your episodes and Oprah and everyone's because - how do I listen?' Kelly said while filming her pilot she talked more than listened. A crew member would hold up a drawing of an airplane as a signal to “…land it because I don’t like shut up.”

Ellen’s reply to Kelly’s listening issues: “Yeah it's definitely important to listen. That is one of the biggest things.”

The Ellen DeGeneres Show debuted way back in 2003 so Ellen knows a thing or two about what makes for a successful talk show. And right from the beginning she realized that listening was a key factor. She shared that a talk show "just seems like the natural progression for me. If anyone has seen me live, I always talk to the audience afterwards. I'm genuinely curious about people. I really do listen. I think you have to listen."

Ellen Degeneres on set and smiling
Credit: Compfight

How Ellen is a good listener as a boss

You probably heard about the controversy that erupted during the summer of 2020 around The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The show faced charges of being a toxic work environment and of harassment towards its staff. There was an internal investigation that included interviews with ex-staffers. As a result, three senior staff members exited.

There were lots of opinions about whether Ellen handled the situation correctly. But she at least listened and responded to the allegations. She addressed the circumstances directly on-air when her show returned in the fall. She apologized and took responsibility for what had happened. Ellen said, “We have had a lot of conversations over the last few weeks about the show, our workplace, and what we want for the future. We have made the necessary changes and today, we are starting a new chapter."


When you need to resolve conflicts with employees at your workplace.

  • Get ahead of conflicts by holding one-on-one meetings with each of your employees. This helps to avoid being blindsided by any problems that may arise.
  • Make it a habit to have private, 30-minute meetings once a month with everyone on your staff -- from the top to the bottom. Make it a safe space for them to share their concerns and actively listen to what they have to say.

How Ellen is a good listener as a comedian

Ellen began doing stand-up comedy in the early 1980’s. She got her big break in 1986 when she was invited to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Johnny would invite comedians to his couch for an interview only if he liked their routine. Ellen was the first woman stand-up comedian invited to the couch.

Ellen Degeneres is smiling, sitting on a couch
Credit: Compfight

In her The Tonight Show skit, Ellen performed her hilarious “Phone Call to God” routine where she mimics a conversation with God. It played into Ellen’s use of observational humor. She is always listening and observing. “I watch people's behavior and notice things. I think that's why I became a comedian. I notice how stupid the things we do are. You know, like writing the word "over" on the bottom of a letter. As if someone's just going to throw the letter away without trying to turn it over first!” This quote is from an interview in 2011 when letters were still a thing!


When you need to listen on a phone call.

  • Find the right listening device that will best block out any background noise. This could be a headset, earbuds, or a speakerphone.
  • Listen for the emotion in the caller’s voice to gain understanding of how they are feeling. Try to match their tone to show that you understand.

How Ellen is a good listener as a friend

During October 2019, Ellen attended a NFL football game. She was spotted in the stadium’s suite, along with her wife Portia de Rossi, being friendly with former President George W. Bush. There was an uproar in the Twitter-verse, mostly because Bush had opposed gay marriage and taken measures to classify crimes against gay people as hate crimes.

Ellen Degeneres at a football game with President George Bush

Ellen pointed out that you can still listen to your friends’ views, and respect them, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye. She talked about the incident on her show with her usual mix of quips and serious messaging: "… I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have. But just because I don't agree with someone on everything doesn't mean that I'm not going to be friends with them. When I say, 'be kind to one another,' I don't only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone." 


When you need to have a productive conversation with a friend you disagree with.

  • Try to build understanding and learning rather than completely tearing each other apart. Stay respectful, calm, rational – and kind.
  • It is not about winning or losing, but about finding areas of agreement rather than disagreement. Attempt to listen for what makes sense instead of listening for how you can show what is wrong with it. 

How Ellen is a not a good listener as a Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree

On November 22, 2016 Ellen sent out this tweet from her handle: "They haven't let me into the White House yet because I forgot my ID. #NotJoking"

Ellen Degeneres receiving the medal of freedom from President Obama
Credit: Compfight

Ellen was at the White House to receive her Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama [note: possible internal link with Obama post]. The honor is for individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors – in other words, it’s kind of a big deal.

We’re presuming that at some point Ellen was given instructions to bring her ID with her to the White House. But somehow she didn’t listen to that information. Eventually Ellen’s identity was confirmed, and she was let into the White House. She later tweeted:  @POTUS Barack Obama just awarded me the #MedalofFreedom. I hope it serves as an ID. I have no idea how I'm getting home. 


When you need to listen and follow instructions.

  • Make an effort to actively listen, and not just hear the instructions that are being told to you. A tip is to pretend that there is going to be a quiz after the conversation.  
  • Other tricks are to visually think about what is being said, to write it down, or to repeat it back. Do not be afraid to ask questions – this means you are listening but just need further clarification.

Let’s wrap up with a story that we can all relate to. 

In her Netflix special Relatable, Ellen details her neuroses when it comes to dining out. She is a super picky eater and usually customizes her order from what is on the menu. “I get so much anxiety from the waiters that refuse to take your orders and write it down. They insist on memorizing your order. Oh my God, I have so much anxiety. I don’t know why they insist on doing it.” 

Ellen hopes the waiter is listening to her detailed order and will not screw it up. So after talk show hosts, waitstaff are probably some of the best listeners out there. Maybe we can pick up some listening advice from them.  

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