Marge: Now the cat needs his medication…
Homer: No problem.
Marge: …every morning.
Homer: Can do.
Marge: And the furnace has been giving off…
Homer: Right.
Marge: …a lot of carbon monoxide…
Homer: Uh-huh.
Marge: …so keep the window op–
Homer: Cat in the furnace

M y children have learned to speak in what I call Cultural Short-hand. It is a family lexicon that comprises dialogue from movies and popular TV shows we have watched together. The above dialogue offers a key to their new language. Obviously Homer is not listening to Marge. It is a very funny scene. We laughed our heads off. From that moment on, anyone in our family caught not actively listening could be easily snapped out of it by the phrase, “Cat in the furnace.”

Unfortunately, this language only works around those who are familiar with the source. If I say, “Cat in the furnace” outside my home, I get a blank look. I sometimes wish I could use this expression everywhere. Here’s an example of why I feel that way.

“You’re not listening to me.”
“Yes I am.”
“What did I just say.”
“I don’t know the exact words but you said something about the weather and a meeting on Friday.”
“See. You’re not listening.”
“Yes I am.”

I can tell you from experience that no one wins that argument. I sometimes wish I could just say “Cat in the Furnace” to make someone obliviously staring at their cell phone to look up. But even with a magical phrase like “Cat in the Furnace,” to snap one to attention; most people aren’t very good listeners. The reason for this is that listening is a learned skill.

Are you a good listener? If you said yes; are you sure? There is actually a formula that determines if you are a good listener or not. An article in Psychology of Marketing by Tanya Drollinger, et al. (2006) outlined an “Active Empathetic Listening” scale for marketers and salespeople. It has been since adapted to apply to anyone. It works particularly well for close personal relationships. The questions are broken down into three categories: Sensing, Processing, and Responding. Check it out first, then rate yourself by downloading and taking the actual test below. Each question is rated on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is never and 7 is always. See how you do.


  • How sensitive are you to what others are saying?
  • Are you aware of what others imply but do not say?
  • Do you understand how others feel?
  • Do you listen for more than the spoken words?


  • Do you assure others that you’ll remember what they say?
  • Do you summarize points of agreement and disagreement when appropriate?
  • Do you keep track of the points that others make?


  • Do you assure others that you’re listening by verbal acknowledgements?
  • Do you assure others that you’re receptive to their ideas?
  • Do you ask questions that show you understand others’ positions?
  • Do you show others that you’re listening by your body language?


Actively listening in a close relationship is vital. Sometimes we have a lot on our minds or maybe we are tired. But listening intently to a loved one is a very important way of saying, “I love and respect you.” Looking into the eyes of your beloved and listening as they give you the graphic details of their root canal speaks volumes—and you might not even have to say a word. So, the next time you find yourself listening with only one ear, say to yourself, “cat in the furnace,” open both ears, Sense, Process, and Respond; in other words, open up your heart and listen.