Management The world knows a lot more than you

You’re Not Listening

I don’t want to write this article. I believe there is no way to provide advice about listening without sounding like a touchy-feely douchebag. But I’m going to write this article because there is a good chance that your definition of listening is incomplete, and what I consider to be obvious and simple ways to listen are not obvious at all.

The problem starts with the word: listen. Of course you know how to listen. You sit there and let the words into your head. Perhaps your definition is more refined. Maybe your definition of listening involves hearing because you’re aware of that switch in your head that you must flip to really hear what a person is saying. It’s work, right? Pulling in all the words, sorting them in your head, and mapping them against the person who is speaking. That is listening, that is hearing, but if that’s all you’re doing and you’re a leader of people, then you’re still only halfway there.

Let’s start with the most basic rule of listening: If they don’t trust you, they aren’t going to say shit.

A Listening Structure

First, context. The type of listening I’m going to describe is not the listening you’re going to use all the time. This is the aggressive listening I employ with co-workers and friends, but once you understand the different parts of this seemingly laborious listening protocol, you’ll start using them elsewhere. Another thing: there’s armchair psychology going on below. I’m going to say “I feel” a lot and your inner systems nerd may rage, but my experience, after years of listening to all types of people, is that these are useful moves.

Second, it would be easy to flip this article and make it a piece about healthy and useful conversations. Some of my advice has to do with building these conversations, but my belief is that a good conversation starts with the ability to listen. A good conversation is a bunch of words elegantly connected with listening.

Let’s start…

Open with innocuous preamble. In most discussions or 1:1s, you have an agenda. There is a question that you really want to ask. Don’t start with this question. In fact, start with something small and innocuous. Crap openers like, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” are actually better than blindsiding someone with, “Hey, I hear Oliver lost his shit in the design review. Weren’t you running that? What happened there?”

Your preamble defines a quiet, safe place where you and your whomever can transition from wherever you were before you sat down together to this new, calm place where intelligent and reasonable conversation occurs. Your preamble states your intent: “Outside of this door it is professionally noisy. Inside of this room, we are going to talk and listen.”

Look them straight in the eye and don’t look at the clock. Once you’re past your opener, it becomes a real challenge. See, Oliver losing his shit is actually a really big deal with lots of implications, and that’s one of three disasters in progress today. Your preamble set the stage, but with all the disasters in progress, you need to focus.

It’s simple, it’s trivial, but attention is defined by eye contact. Think about the last time you sat in the audience in a huge presentation. Remember when the presenter walked to your side of the room and looked you straight in the eye? WHAM She’s… looking at me. What I am going to do? For reasons I do not understand but completely feel, we are more mentally engaged when we’re staring at each other’s eyes. Eye contact is the easiest way to demonstrate your full attention and it’s also the easiest way to destroy it.

23 minutes into your 1:1, you remember an essential part of one of the other disasters going on today and you glance at the clock… and they notice. Listening is built on a evolving attention contract that initially reads: “He is really busy and has no time for me”. Each time that you successfully sit down and give someone else your full attention, the attention contract gradually evolves. After a time, it reads: “He and I meet each week and we honestly talk about what matters”.

A single glance at your clock is not going to void the attention contract, but early on in a relationship it can certainly set the tone.

Be a curious fool. This is a restatement of advice I gave in the 1:1 article: “Assume they have something to teach you”. As a lead, manager, or director, early on in establishing the attention contract, they’re going to be nervous. They’re going to assume that you’ll be talking and not listening and the exact opposite is what you’re looking to negotiate.

It’s a game. Keep asking stupid questions based on whatever topics arrive until you find an answer where they light up. She sat straight up when we started talking automation. The first time he didn’t seem nervous was when he talked about traveling. Being a curious fool means talking about things that appear to have no substantive value to the conversation or the business – that’s ok. Over time, your foolishness will allow you to build connective tissue, to further develop your mental profile of this person. When you understand what they really care about, you’ll be better equipped to have bigger conversations, and that is where trust is built.

Validate ambiguity, map their words to yours, and build gentle segues. There will be bumps while you listen. There will be strange sentences and awkward pauses, statements that make no sense, and unanswerable questions. And your job during all of this confusion is to maintain the conversational flow.

In my head, a good conversation has a steady, healthy tempo. This. Is How. We Speak. Listen. And Learn. When a bump in the conversation arrives, I ask myself: do I need to understand what just happened or is it in our interest to move along? If further understanding is the move, I repeat their last sentence, “What I hear you saying is…” and then I repeat my version of their thought.

It feels redundant, repeating what was just said. It feels inefficient because the words were just out there, but trust me when I say that a decent amount of your professional misery is based on the simple act of one person misinterpreting the intent of another and misinterpretation avoidance isn’t even the goal of this move. The goal is to make it clear to the other person: “I know you just said something complicated and I am directing my full attention at understanding what you said and what it means”.

There are two possible reactions to this restatement: the nod or the stare. The nod means, “You heard me correctly and let’s move along”. The stare means, “I don’t know what you just said”. I counter the stare with another restatement, except this time I use more of the words and language that were in the original idea – I make it sound like they said it, but it’s me talking.

The last tempo maintenance move I have is the segue. Similar to your preamble, part of your job is to discover how to move from one topic to the next. The validation and repetition moves I suggest above are one way to pull this off, but a segue can be even simpler. It can be, “Ok, next thought?” or “And then what happened?” A conversation without clarification and segues is an exhausting circular exercise where two people are working increasingly hard at not understanding what the other is saying and failing to get to the point.

Pause. Like, shut up. There will be times when you’re listening and it’s clear they want to say something else. They’re dying to say it, but you cannot find the question, the segue, or the words to pull it out of them. In what is one of the more advanced listening moves, my advice is: shut up.

Yes, I just told you to gently guide a conversation by listening and finding segues from one thought to the next, but that’s not working. It’s time to be quiet for as long as it takes. When I’m pulling this move, I sit there maintaining eye contact and repeating to myself: I will not be the next person to speak. I will not be the next person to speak. It’s maddening… for both of you, but that’s the point. The conversation is not headed where it needs to go, so you’re going to disrupt with silence.

You are not in their head. No matter how empathic or smart you believe yourself to be, the story they’re telling themselves is vastly different than the story you’re telling yourself. In these awkward silences, I find people volunteer the part of the story they really want to tell.

If They Don’t Trust You, They Aren’t Going to Say Shit

Everything I just described can be faked. Anyone who has been pressured into buying something they did not need has been on the receiving end of faked listening skills, but there’s a reason why, when you leave the car dealership, that you feel used. You slowly become aware that you were manipulated with a false sense of familiarity and connection. You realize that while they showed interest in you, they didn’t really listen. They have no clue who you are. It was an empty conversation facilitated by manipulation cloaked as listening skills.

Listening is work, and the difference between listening well and making them feel like you’re selling them a car has to do with intent. Each time I sit down to listen, my goal is the same: continue to build trust with the people I depend upon and who, in turn, depend upon me. It takes months of listening, but I want a professional relationship where my team willingly tells me the smallest concern or their craziest idea. Think of healthy listening as preventative relationship maintenance.

The longer you’re a bad listener, the smaller your world gets and the narrower your mind becomes, because you’re not exposing yourself to different ideas and perspective. The better you become at listening, the more of the world you’ll see, and the world knows a lot more than you.

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20 Responses

  1. I’m truly stunned. I’ll need to bookmark this and reread it daily for a while to make sure the principles sink in. I can’t begin to think about the times I’ve unintentionally wrecked relationships when I meant to untangle situations. Hmm.

  2. I completely agree about looking at the clock. I think it puts people on edge when they know that there’s a time limit. So I got a small table-top clock (I call it my “therapist clock”) and I set it right behind where people in my office would sit. This way I can pay attention to the time and pace the conversation, without breaking the flow of conversation to check the time. I’ve had a ton of success with this, and I’ve actually received some good feedback from folks about it — so even though they know my trick, they like and appreciate it. 🙂

  3. Seb Abbott 4 years ago

    One of the biggest challenges I find when listening is ignoring tone. Yes, the manner in which people say things is meta-information, too. But some people have a(to my ears)naturally whingeing tone which riles me. Others are loud and shouty, which is against my own nature. Their message tends to get lost in an internal, perhaps defensive reaction on my part.

    For me, the real challenge is to filter out the carrier wave and listen only to the signal without homing in on my own internal feelings and wallowing there. Haven’t found a reliable method yet…

  4. I don’t know if you’ve any experience with psychotherapy, but many of those techniques are exactly what therapists use – as alluded to Abe and his ‘therapist clock’.

    I would emphasise that sometimes accepting that you don’t understand things is more productive – and scary. You have to trust that the understanding will come. This goes against nerd instinct, but it’s what happens when we ‘talk to the duck’ – you describe things as they are, even though you don’t understand them – and then that understanding hits you. Most nerds will have experienced that. This ‘understanding slapping you between the eyes’ is also a part of the therapy process.

    I don’t agree Seb – tone, and even just the ‘feeling in the room’ are important. That silence you mentioned could be angry, fearful, contemplative. Heck, we can hold ‘conversations’ without words – a smile at a stranger or a baby, or just some expressions in a foreign country. It might not win a Pulitzer, but it say something.

    I’m not convinced that that ‘aggressive listening’ can be faked, either. If it’s done right, it’s fairly passive; you’re not talking, you’re listening. People trying pressure you isn’t passive. It’s like a jagged spike through the conversation. For me, at least, that sends my BS radar into meltdown.

    But thanks for a fascinating post – I’ll have to try using techniques out of therapy at work. I’ve never tried that.

  5. I read this, years ago as a new software manager. Easily the best book on talking to people ever.

    Crucial Conversations

  6. Andomar 4 years ago

    Awesome post. I’m naturally shy and avoid looking people in the eye. It’ll help me to remember that they interpret that as lack of interest.

  7. David O. 4 years ago

    Sometimes when a person is talking, I don’t want to interrupt, but they say something that I want to know more about. I let them continue, but later on I’ll say something like: “Awhile ago you said something about . . . . Did you mean . . . . ” I think this lets the person know that I’m listening hard and remembering. Anyway, it seems to work.

  8. Pascal 4 years ago

    As Andy already mentioned, this is exactly how you train to listen to your patients as an MD. Not that every MD masters these skills, though… 😉

    If these skills would be taught early on to every child the world would be a much better place IMHO.

  9. Excellent! But I would add one more item to the list: Mind your physical expression.

    In stressful situations your ‘thoughtful’ facial expression can look ‘angry’ and something as simple as leaning back in your chair can come across as distancing. Your essay is so good that I’m sure you’re aware of this, but it might not be a bad idea to mention it; for the good of others.

  10. I like (almost) everything here. Except this one point:

    “start with something small and innocuous. Crap openers like, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” are actually better than blindsiding someone…”

    They may be better than blindsiding someone but you have GOT to find a better opener. Try for something that has to do with work.

    Because when I walk into a 1:1 and my manager says “How are you?” I’m suspicious. Is that a trick question? Are we wasting time here? I know he doesn’t really care ho wI am and we only have half an hour and I really need to get back to work and I hate 1:1s anyway and “How _am_ I”? Seriously???

    So let’s add a the corollary to the most basic rule of listening: If they don’t trust you, that “innocuous” opener to the conversation is going to turn them off Right Now.

    And now that we’ve read this article, we can out-silence our managers.

    Clock’s ticking.

  11. This is such a great article!

    As Pascal commented above, these are some of the same techniques I use to communicate with my patients as a physician. The basic rule of trust is the most important thing to me. If the patient doesn’t trust me, they are more inclined to lie or leave vital details out that can help with the diagnosis. And without trust, the patient is more likely to be more noncompliant with their treatment options which, in turn, delays the healing process.

    I also want to add that Del Miller makes a very good point too. There was a physician back in my third year of med school that taught me how to listen better and be more humble with patients as to gain their trust. One of the techniques was to lean slightly towards them during conversations and to always keep the chair I sat one at a lower level compared to the seat/chair the patient was on. It’s to keep the patient from being intimidated by the physician.

    Sorry for any typos, wrote this quickly on an iPad. Again, great article. Keep up the great work.

  12. Dominic 4 years ago

    I’d like to thank you for sharing a great article.

    Like most skills in life, I believe listening only gets better if perfectly practiced. How often is that taught if you don’t continue an education, find a mentor, or belong to a group of either professionals or first responders – where listening or lack thereof can become a possible life & death situation.

    Listening is not obvious and there’s a big difference between listening and hearing what the other person has to say. Ask any teenager and parent especially with phones, computers, emails, text, & other distractions. We need to build trust before we have those 1-to-1’s or difficult conversations.

    Our stage is primarily built on our character & how we lead, do our tasks, and share our vision for how we want the job done & completed. Being able to speak of our values openly hopefully allows us to build a bridge when others lack the skills during a conversation. It provides the anchor we all despertly want at times… To be heard and understood.

  13. I’d complement this piece with this other one about Cold Blooded Listening, the type of listening you need to practice in adversarial situations to come out on top: http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=78cbbb7f2882629a5157fa593&id=a1407c97d8

  14. PROTIP: If you take notes on paper on clipboards (as doctors must, and as many other people should learn to), get a clipboard with the little clock in the top.

    Bonus if it has a calculator. That’s so that, besides being useful as a calculator, its design doesn’t scream “this is obviously so I can check the time without you even suspecting!, whenever I scribble something, ostensibly just to note stuff that needs doing (→ buy a pack of HDMI extsn cables for conf room prjctr) or people that need emailing (ẽ: jimmy about the flux capacitor).”

    Super-duper extra bonus: If the clipboard is one of the new clamshell clipboards. Because those rule the school.

    Now you are invincible.

  15. Thanks for this great post on listening. Your take on this is so interesting and fresh, and really made me think! I especially enjoyed this quote “When you understand what they really care about, you’ll be better equipped to have bigger conversations, and that is where trust is built.” Thanks!

  16. migwellian 4 years ago

    In my experience “the stare” is usually misinterpreted by the other party, who carries on regardless.

    I also wanted to point out that this resonates with “empathic listening”, one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits.

  17. Scott 4 years ago

    Become the Interested Introvert. An area of my life I would like to improve. Listening and actually taking the advice.

  18. This is a great post. Also check out the recent “Charisma Myth”, which provides a thorough overview of many of the things discussed here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Charisma-Myth-Science-Personal-Magnetism/dp/1591844568

  19. Reading this has been a pleasure. Rands has yet again managed to touch the core of what it means to lead.

    My personal agenda for many years has been that 1x1s are the most important thing a software manager can and must do. The single most important discovery I’ve made in this field is the art of difficult conversations. This helped me understand past mistakes, find common ground in many tough 1x1s and grow personally.

  20. wimsy 4 years ago

    Was wondering if you were ever going to get to the point. Guess not.

    Listening to you, if it’s like reading your stuff, must be torture.