Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 18, 2021
“Can you hear me now?”
“Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” — Alexander Graham Bell
“BlahBlahBlah.” — Robocall
The difference between hearing and listening is significant, but even more so is the difference between talking and listening. Most of us are thinking about what we are going to say before the other person has finished talking. I will raise my hand and confess to being guilty. But like Weight Watchers, I am working on losing those last 10 pounds, and help is on the way.
Let me introduce you to a new book by Kate Murphy, “You’re Not Listening. What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” Murphy contends that we interrupt “as a way to define ourselves, shape the narrative and stay on the message we are promoting.” We check our phones, or appear distracted, waiting for our chance to give our opinion.
Active listening is hard to do and is a skill worth developing. Murphy asked hundreds of people: “What does it mean to be a good listener?” And what she got were blank stares. By contrast, the group had a lot to say about being a bad listener, being cut off, ignored and misunderstood.
I spend a lot of time on the phone, negotiating as well as coaching. My own technique is to try to say back to the speaker what I think he just said. “Bob, let me see if I got it right, what you were saying is ….”
This technique does two things. It affirms that I was trying hard to listen and in the repeating back to the speaker, I have the chance to clarify both his thinking and my understanding. And there is the added nuance that perhaps I can nudge him into what I really wanted to hear.
Murphy talks about social media. The world likes texts better than voicemails (I have finally learned to text but I still prefer voicemail, it allows better for shouting.) She says people use emojis as a shortcut for content. And she suggests that we are locked in a bubble with our earbuds and that this contributes to “an epidemic of loneliness.”
However, by the same token, podcasting has become the modern equivalent of owning a radio station. In 2020, there were more than 700,000 podcasts with more than 29 million episodes. That is a lot of someone talking, with maybe someone listening. Now, as to whether anyone really heard anything or really listened, let alone understood, we can explore that in my next podcast.
Murphy continues, “The image of success and power today is someone miked up, prowling around a stage, giving a TED talk. That interaction, where you are in the audience, in your seat, ostensibly listening, while checking your phone, lacks one key feature, namely personal interaction. You are a passive receptacle.”
Murphy interviewed professional listeners, priests, bartenders, furniture salesmen, also some CIA/SWAT operatives who bring the terrorists off the bridge or hostages from the building, and the key to the puzzle is “good listeners ask good questions.” You can listen better if you ask, “truly curious questions, without a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising or chastising.”
A good listener will ask an artful question designed to pause and perhaps persuade. How you frame the question can lead the other person to an awareness they may not have had before. But, like the box of chocolates, you don’t always know what you will get.
When Murphy conducted a focus group for grocers, she asked, “Tell me about the last time you went grocery shopping late at night.” An unassuming woman spoke up from the group, “I had just smoked a joint and was looking for a menage a trois — me, Ben and Jerry.”
The CIA agent pointed out “interrogation will not get you credible information.” Don’t make the deal point discussion sound like a deposition. And then she finally hits me where it hurts most, “People with higher I.Q.s also tend to be more neurotic and self-conscious, which means worry and anxiety hijack their attention.” Nota bene to shrink.
And finally, if you listen well, the other person will “volunteer more information.” Let the tape roll and you will hear what you never expected and would never have asked.
Rule #691: “You talking to me? – Travis Bickle