One Mouth, Two Ears: The Lost Art of Listening

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I grew up in a noisy family. There weren’t fireworks going off at all hours, or music being blasted out of the windows (well, not that often anyway; sorry, Mum), but we were – how can I put this without offending my sister and brother? – a very talkative family.

My mum could talk about anything, to anyone, in any situation. And often did. She’d strike up a conversation anywhere. My dad, when he was around, loved a chat as well, though he wasn’t in Mum’s league. My sister and brother were constantly vocal too: the former chattering away, the latter more chuntering away to himself in his own little world. Often it felt like there were four completely different conversations going on between the four of them.

Now I am not renowned for being a shrinking violet myself either. I love a chat, especially if you can find me a subject of particular special interest – football, cricket, music, books, politics, people development. But of the five of us at home I was most definitely the quiet one.

As life, and my working career, have gone on, I have learned that I am a very good listener. People tell me that, it isn’t just my ego proclaiming it. Oh sure, I’m still as garrulous as the next person when the mood takes me, or if the company I’m keeping lends itself to it, but I’ve developed the skill – and it is a skill – of being able to listen. It’s a trait that some people find difficult to appreciate.

I sometimes find myself in situations when conversations appear as though they are being manipulated. Talking about myself? That’s interesting. Listening to other people talking about themselves? Nah. Boring. Or so it can come across. But why should we imagine that droning on about ourselves is remotely interesting to other people? Unless you’re asked to do so, obviously, in which case it’s a bit of an open goal…

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I find it infuriating in a formal interview situation when you ask the interviewee to tell you a bit about themselves and they dry up after a sentence or two. OK, so there will be some nerves. I get that. But if you took that same person down to the pub, or out for a coffee, and ensured that they were relaxed before asking the same question again, the likelihood is that you probably wouldn’t be able to shut them up. People like to talk. And the most popular topic people like to talk about is almost invariably themselves. Interview situations may actually be the only ones in which this behaviour doesn’t automatically kick in.

In work situations it’s important, if you want to come across as a good listener, to sound interested. Ask the right questions. Keep the flow going. It sounds daft, but most people are not really listening. They might be giving you occasional eye contact, or nodding, umming and ahhing, but often they’re simply rehearsing what they’re going to say. The rude ones won’t even let you finish before they’re out with their own reply – which may or may not bear any semblance to the point you were making. Listening to understand is so much more important than just listening. Ask someone how they felt. What they did next. What they learned. Good listeners will be able to keep the flow going. If the person speaking goes off topic, pull them gently back to the point. Their point. Don’t just manipulate the conversation back to you. The world doesn’t revolve around you. As Maya Angelou put it, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We all know people who dominate conversations. You’re down the pub and your friends are all telling stories. Occasionally you’ll join in. When you’re comfortable in someone’s company the conversation will flow naturally. But in work situations, or when you’re meeting someone for the first time, it can be more stilted, more forced. You have to try harder. That’s when listening becomes more important too. Anyone who tells you they enjoy meeting people will likely come from the extrovert stable of the personality spectrum (see blog on this topic a couple of months back), which suggests they’re more likely to be outgoing and friendly. And, most likely, chatty. In turn, this means they will probably be in talking, and not listening, mode. So, they’re meeting someone, and then telling them all about themselves. Fine, up to a point. But for balance they must ensure they’re allowing the person they are meeting to have their turn too. Otherwise they’re not so much meeting people as simply road testing new subjects to talk at.

My granddaughter Willow is eighteen months old and we’re at the stage where we’re about to find out what her first words are going to be. Could be any day now. Disappointingly for me, ‘Ian Wright-Wright-Wright’ appears to be well down in the betting, but we’ll let that slide. First words are milestones. But although we encourage children to speak, there aren’t too many milestones in terms of them understanding how to listen. ‘Be quiet’ or ‘Mummy’s talking’ or such like aren’t lessons. They are admonishments. How do youngsters learn the need for balance between mouth and ears? How do they develop the art of conversation? How do they learn how to debate, to see someone else’s argument?

Many of us not only fail to listen: we miss, misunderstand and misinterpret so many messages and ideas because of our preconceptions, biases, and wishes. We hear what we want to hear. If we don’t agree with what someone is saying the likelihood is that we tune out. If we haven’t interrupted them already, we are mentally rehearsing our counter-argument. The person speaking may have added several incredibly valid points to the first sentence that resulted in us switching off but we’re no longer listening. What started as one conversation has now become two. If it’s an emotive subject, or if the tone or pitch of voice is ratcheted up even slightly, this can often lead to entrenched views from two people who – despite long odds against – are going to spend the next however long hell-bent on persuading the other around to their way of thinking. The conversation will likely go nowhere from there. Ears have been closed.

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Take our politicians. (And yes, I really wish someone would, but this is not the place…) Our adversarial House of Commons set-up and largely two-party political system means that whoever is in government, the opposition will simply oppose as a matter of routine. In any political debate the only people listening to what an MP is saying are the MPs on his or her own side of the House. You can be sure those on the benches opposite are just waiting for their turn to speak. They won’t be debates in the true sense of the word, just a Buggins’ Turn, bouncing from one side of the chamber to the other. OK, so that’s an extreme – and somewhat crude and cynical – example, but it demonstrates much of what is wrong with the art of listening and how that influences (or not) the quality of debate. “I think the question really is…” “What the people really want…” “I think you’ll find…” and my all-time favourite, “Let me be absolutely clear”: all signs of an individual paying no attention whatsoever to the question or the point and just saying what they want.

The best leaders in business understand the value of listening. They understand what customers want, or what employees are suggesting might work better. They listen with more interest. The old autocratic command-and-control leadership is more aligned to talking, issuing instructions, than listening, or seeking consensus. The best leaders are far more prepared to use their ears these days. They ask questions. They encourage feedback.

There is, of course, a huge difference between the type of conversations that families have, or groups of friends, and those we have in a work context. I’ve alluded to my own family. Neither of my parents are around any longer, sadly, though I do still find myself having conversations with a photograph of my Mum every morning, mainly as a means of justifying something I’m doing, or just geeing myself up. When I’m together with my brother and sister on a Zoom call, or – hopefully not before too much longer – in person again, the two of them will dominate. I have no issue with that. I kind of like it that I’m the quiet one.

Some say the art of family conversation is dying. Meals around the dining room table seem to be a bit of an old-fashioned notion. Kids are surgically attached to their mobile phones. Often parents are too. Shame. If ever there were a perfect opportunity to develop the balance between speaking and listening, there it is. I’m not advocating families encouraging full-on debates about food waste in the Uzbekistan farming community or the best way of irrigating the Limpopo, but some sort of conversation can at least be encouraged, and regulated, when everyone is around the table at meal times.

At work it’s different. Hierarchies kick in more. As do politics. Or a manager’s behaviour. When was the last time you genuinely felt that you were being listened to by your boss or another colleague? Not just the token nodding of a head opposite you, but really felt that the person you were with was taking in what you were saying and encouraging you to develop a point? How did it make you feel? Does that happen often enough? If not, why not?

We always need to find time for people. Time is the enemy. My work takes me into different work environments and different work cultures. In some, I’m there precisely to help change those cultures, so it’s a question of observing and then trying to persuade people to revisit the way they operate. I find that in some meeting situations, some people are openly blatant about not listening to others. Laptops are on. Mobile phones are pinging. Individuals are texting. People are nipping in and out: ‘Excuse me, I really need to take this call.’ It’s not only not listening. It’s downright rude. And it shouldn’t be taboo to be able to say so. Put the phone down. Even better, switch it off. Give the people you are with the time they deserve. It’s not multi-tasking. It’s not you looking busy. It’s just sad. You’re not as important as you think and the world will continue to revolve on its axis if your phone is off for an hour, believe me. Others in the room are just viewing you as yet another manager who never listens. ‘My door is always open,’ is the cry, but it invariably carries the suffix ‘but only come in if it’s business-ruiningly important.’

Once you’ve found the time for people and you’ve made yourself clear of distractions, start to bounce ideas off them. Make them think. Challenge them. Pick them up on what they’re saying and allow them to develop their thoughts and ideas. Allow them to reflect on what they are saying by drawing their attention back to key points. A good listener will direct a conversation forward. A bad listener will constantly bring it back to them. Listen in order to understand, and not simply to reply.

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Listening becomes a far more compassionate action if we pause and choose to respond, putting ourselves in that person’s place, instead of reacting or interjecting with talk about ourselves, or our own experiences, or our own views. This kind of deeper listening validates people, connects us to them, and provides meaning. Listening is an art that requires work, self-discipline, and skill.

Look out for the non-verbal clues, the body language, the gestures. Look the speaker in the eye. Don’t judge them too hurriedly. Don’t take them on. Don’t press your mind up against theirs. Listen for ideas as well as facts. Don’t try to grab attention while someone else is talking – you know, with the raised eyebrows, the distracting ‘uh-huhs’, the exaggerated nodding: it can look like you’re only pretending to be interested. Don’t try to monopolize the conversation, which I know is especially difficult if it’s a topic you know a lot about. Try not to fill a gap with the first thing that comes into your head – add to the conversation. These all come with practice.

I don’t pretend that I am the world’s greatest listener. I’m not. Far from it. I butt in. My mind wanders. I monopolize. I’m as guilty of ‘me talk’ as anyone else. But in professional terms I have had to become a good listener, a good coach, because of the job that I do. I’m paid to draw the best out of other people. And in terms of learning how best to do that, the greatest benefit has come from learning to listen properly. Try it.

I’m not generally one for motivational or inspirational quotes, but I’ll leave you with three to close:

  • “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” (Dalai Lama)
  • “The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.” (Alfred Brendel)
  • “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” (M. Scott Peck)