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Registered: ‎11-10-2010
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“ARE YOU LISTENING? SAY SOMETHING!”


This entry was posted in the following categories: Language, Management, Skills
[Note: J. Michael Hammond suggests that I note right at the top of this post that the dictionary definition of listen does not restrict the word to the mere noticing of sounds. In the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as others, an extended and more active definition of listening is also given. It’s that extended definition of listening I am writing about here.]

I’m tired of hearing the simplistic advice about how to listen one must not talk. That’s not what listening means. I listen by reacting. As an extravert, I react partly by talking. Talking is how I chew on what you’ve told me. If I don’t chew on what you say, I will choke or get tummy aches and nightmares. You don’t want me to have nightmares, do you? Until you interrupt me to say otherwise, I charitably assume you don’t.

Below is an alternative theory of listening; one that does not require passivity. I will show how this theory is consistent the “don’t talk” advice if you consider that being quiet while other people speak is one heuristic of good listening, rather than the definition or foundation of it. I am tempted to say that listening requires talking, but that is not quite true. This is my proposal of a universal truth of listening: Listening requires you to change.

To Listen is to Change

I propose that to listen is to react coherently and charitably to incoming information. That is how I would define listening.
To react is to change. The reactions of listening may involve a change of mood, attention, concept, or even a physical action.
Notice that I said “coherently and charitably” and not “constructively” or “agreeably.” I think I can be listening to a criminal who demands ransom even if I am not constructive in my response to him. Reacting coherently is not the same as accepting someone’s view of the world. If I don’t agree with you or do what you want me to, that is not proof of my poor listening. “Coherently” refers to a way of making sense of something by interpreting it such that it does not contradict anything important that you also believe is true and important about the world. “Charitably” refers to making sense of something in a way most likely to fit the intent of the speaker.

Also, notice that coherence does not require understanding. I would not be a bad listener, necessarily, if I didn’t understand the intent or implications of what was told to me. Understanding is too high a burden to require for listening. Coherence and charitability already imply a reasonable attempt to understand, and that is the important part.

Poor listening would be the inability or refusal to do the following:

take in data at a reasonable pace. (“reasonable pace” is subject to disagreement)
make sense of data that is reasonably sensible in that context, including empathizing with it. (“reasonably sensible” is subject to disagreement)
reason appropriately about the data. (“reason appropriately” is subject to disagreement)
take appropriate responsibility for one’s feelings about the data (“appropriate responsibility” is subject to disagreement)
make a coherent response. (“coherent response” is subject to disagreement)
comprehend the reasonable purposes and nature of the interaction (“reasonable purposes and nature” is subject to disagreement)
Although all these elements are subject to disagreement, you might not choose to actively dispute them in a given situation, because maybe you feel that the disagreement is not very important. (As an example, I originally wrote “dispute” in the text above, which I think is fine, but during review, after hearing me read the above, Michael Bolton suggested changing “dispute” to “disagreement” and that seemed okay, too, so I made the change. In making his suggestion, he did not need to explain or defend his preference, because he’s earned a lot of trust with me and I felt listened to.)

I was recently told, in an argument, that I was not listening. I didn’t bother to reply to the man that I also felt he wasn’t listening to me. For the record, I think I was listening well enough, and what the man wanted from me was not listening– he wanted compliance to his world view, which was the very matter of dispute! Clearly he wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted, and the word he used for that was listening. Meanwhile, I had reacted to his statements with arguments against them. To me, this is close to the essence of listening.

If you really believe someone isn’t listening, it’s unlikely that it will help to say that, unless you have a strong personal relationship. When my wife tells me I’m not listening, that’s a very special case. She’s weaker than me and crucial to my health and happiness, therefore I will use every tool at my disposal to make myself easy for her to talk to. I generally do the same for children, dogs, people who seem mentally unstable, fire, and dangerous things, but not for most colleagues. I do get crossed up sometimes. Absolutely. Especially on Twitter. Sometimes I assume a colleague feels powerful, and respond to him that way, only later to discover he was afraid of me.

(This happened again just the other day on Twitter. Which is why it is unlikely you will see me teach in Finland any time soon! I am bitten by such a mistake a few times a year, at least. For me this is not a reason to be softer with my colleagues. Then again, it may be. I struggle with the pros and cons. There is no simple answer. I regularly receive counsel from my most trusted colleagues on this point.)