on the topic of listening

there is a joke in my family that has persisted forever and it goes something like this: listen to what the other is saying for references to ‘hearing’ or ‘not hearing’ and get them to repeat it, pretending not to have heard, through some trickery.

mom: “how was the show last night?”
son: “good, but we were in the back and it was difficult to hear.”
mom: “huh?”
son: “we were in the back and couldn’t hear.”
mom: “what?”
son: “i said…”


joke aside, it seems almost counter intuitive. early in our educational careers we’re taught spelling, grammar, and writing to so we can put our thoughts and voice into a meaningful message. later on we’re offered instruction on composing and presenting speeches to class and public. in a military science class i once enrolled in, a few day’s instruction was devoted to presentations: how to create and deliver them effectively. apparently standing straight, annunciation, and projecting the voice is a skill on par with learning how to shoot the enemy – both lessons lasted the same number of days.

in the twenty some-odd-years of my educational course taking, i’ve never seen a class on listening, effective or otherwise, that was offered by a school.

scan the periodicals or research online and you’ll find a plethora of articles related to listening: active listening, effective listening, and non-verbal listening. we can listen with our eyes and with our hearts; and there are a lot of references to the quote [often attributed to Diogenes the Cynic] proportioning our ears to mouth and advising we use them accordingly.

so why the emphasis on communicating out-loud with little on how to actually listen? i ask because lately i’ve encountered more than the usual instances of not being heard. being that i am the common denominator in every instance, it has me concerned.

at the risk of becoming a cautionary tale, i’ll share an example or three.

  1. the un-answered question. an almost weekly event (and not limited to home life) is me asking a question and getting a response full of everything but the answer, it could be anything.
    a) what would you like for dinner? returns a verbal avalanche on par with a chapter from any Michener novel and still doesn’t tell me what to shop for.
    b) how many configurations does that combined-cycle unit support? 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all acceptable; i would even accept, “it depends” instead of the 15 minute lesson that followed.
    c) how much will mary’s first semester at school cost? you can bet it wont be any real number greater than 1.
    i don’t mean to be rude but don’t answer what you think i want to know. just answer the damn question.
  2. not following direction. self explanatory.

the website, psychology today, offers a listening skills test in 33 questions. i scored 82%, i’m patient and tactfully interact and guide the conversation with respect to what the other person is saying. Whew. that’s much better than, “you want to stuff a dog toy from the backyard into people’s mouths and beat them over the head to enlarge their ears“, which is what i thought i might get.

in simple terms i know why this happens and at the risk of becoming Me the Cynic, it’s this: we want to be *heard* but we don’t want to commit. fear of being wrong somehow trumps what we know and confidence drops like a wet sack of sand.

most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
–Stephen R. Covey

back at the top i said there’s a plethora of material on this topic. there is, and i’ll leave the discovery to you, but they all seem to offer some common advice. i’ll paraphrase from a few:

  • talk less – your conversation partner should be speaking 80 percent of the time, while you should speak only 20 percent of the time. call it another 80/20 rule.
  • reflection – when we listen we should show the other person that what they are saying to us is being heard.
  • probe – means asking for additional information keeps you engaged.
  • deflecting – we deflect from what we’re being told rather than acknowledge it; it shows we’re preoccupied with something else. don’t do it.
  • be respectful – when you show respect for other people’s ideas, they’re more likely to reciprocate.
  • good listening is hard work and not a spectator sport.
  • good listening means asking questions, challenging assumptions, and understanding the context.

some of these come from Wright State University professor of management, Scott D. Williams, Ph.D. and others come from Bernard T. Ferrari’s book, Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All. i’ve not yet read his book but have added it to my summer list.

Diogenes also believed that action, rather than theorizing, is the path to virtue. while he may have been a pariah in the 4th century (bce), i’m going to take that page myself and put it to use. 82 out of 100 is a b-minus so i’m going to practice and become a better listener.

can you hear me now?





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