Learning To Listen For Learning


Can you hear me? Are you listening to me? Those two statements are used frequently to see if someone is paying attention to what you’re saying. Their connotation is very different though. One asks a question about whether you can tell if there are words coming out of someone’s mouth. Is the language something you can process? The other question is all about understanding.

Taking Turns Speaking

“Seek first to understand,then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey

Listening is hard. Like super hard. How often do you find yourself on a conference call with your mind wandering to other things you need to take care of? How many times have we seen someone shopping online for shoes or camping gear instead of taking notes on the call they should be paying attention to? They answer is more often than we should.

Attention spans are hard for everyone, whether you’re affected by attention disorders or have normal brain chemistry. Our minds hate being bored. They’re always looking for a way to escape to something more exciting and stimulating. You know you can feel it when there’s a topic that seriously interests you and pulls you in versus the same old staff meeting each week when we just run down a list of notes that haven’t changed in weeks.

The second reason why listening is harder for us is because we’re often waiting for our turn to talk. Be honest with yourself on this one. During your last five conversations with people, were you really listening to what they were saying? Or were you just waiting for an opportunity to jump in with a statement or opinion? And, in all honesty, was that statement just something you were going to say to prove that you were paying attention the whole time?

I admit I have huge issues with attention and listening myself. My brain is always racing a thousand miles an hour with the statements people make. If it’s a briefing I’m usually thinking about use cases or applications of technology or where the next steps will go. If it’s a discussion about a topic with opinions I’m listening for their position and formulating my response by taking their arguments and finding counter arguments. If it’s a boring meeting or status update session I’m usually working on my own list or trying to cross tasks off to get ahead with my time.

Whatever your reason for not paying attention, you have to realize that doing it means you’re not focused on the message. In classic communications training, the lesson is that there are three components to a message:

  1. The sender
  2. The receiver
  3. The message

People focus on the first and the third a lot. They optimize how to deliver a speech or how to craft the perfect message. The second part of the list is the one that gets neglected. How does the receiver act in the communication? Do they pay attention actively and summarize the content? Do they ask questions to seek better understanding? Or are they bored? Are they looking for their opportunity to turn things around and make themselves the primary sender?

Seeking Understanding

It’s been a long hard road for me at Tech Field Day and Gestalt IT to learn how to listen and understand and not just hear and hope for a chance to speak or tell a story. Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) has helped me a lot by making me sit back and listen and get people talking instead of dominating the conversation. My time with the BSA Wood Badge program has also given me a lot of tools to help.

Here are a few ways that I work on listening with the intention to understand:

  • Taking Notes – This is something that I work hard on because with every conversation I tell myself I have a great memory and then I remember that I’ve forgotten I don’t. I’m a voracious note-taker. If a piece of paper has a square inch of space and there is a pen in reach I will write on it. Sadly, this means there are notes all over the place with zero context that have been lost to time. My note taking strategy has evolved to embrace things like pre-notes, where I start the notes for a briefing or conversation ahead of time to capture important questions or thoughts to ask, written electronic notes with my iPad and Notability where I can write things down on the fly without having to stop to think about typing, and consolidation of notes, where I go back and add those notes to a program like Agenda. Yes, it’s extra work but that extra work helps me summarize, categorize, and draw conclusions during the consolidation process. It’s like reading your study notes back a second time or rewatching a sports play to catch the nuance of the action.
  • Comprehension Questions – When you’re in a briefing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just repeating back the thing you heard a minute ago to prove you’re paying attention. When I’m teaching my Scouts something and I ask them if they’re paying attention, some of the time they’ll do this to me. I fight back by asking them what that last thing they told me means to them in their own words. I want them to be thinking the whole time and not just listening for their name. Critical thinking is a skill we have to develop just like a fastball or juggling. The way to increase it is to be able to ask a summarizing question in a briefing. Speakers will pause frequently to ask, “Are there any questions? Is this making sense?” This is your chance to jump in with a summary and a question. Quickly summarize the important point – “You said BGP is broken” followed by a question, “Can we fix it with identity validation or something like PKI?” A word of warning on this one: remember to ask a question seeking knowledge. Don’t just state an opinion trying to prove you’re smarter than the speaker and then ask them what they think about your opinion.
  • Take The Lead – This one is especially important for people that interview others or podcasters that deal with shy guests. There are times when you realize the person you’re talking to is smart and capable but doesn’t communicate well. If you see that you’re going to need to jump in a take an active role in the conversation, but from the perspective of teasing out their knowledge. Leading them to where they need to be to be comfortable or expressive. My good friend Ethan Banks (@ECBanks) does an amazing job of this on his podcasts. He asks questions in a way that gives the speaker a clear opening to seize on his words to tell their story. It’s like watching an episode of Perry Mason where the star lawyer asks a question in the right way to make the witness tell the story they’re afraid of telling. When you do it right, it seems like you’re just very curious and the speaker does the job of telling the story. If you do it wrong, you’re dominating the conversation and putting words in someone’s mouth. If you really want to practice this part, ask your kids (or someone close to you) how their day went. Don’t let them stop at “fine” or “good”. Encourage them to expand on that by asking very leading questions about specific parts of the day or topics of interest. You’ll be a pro in no time.

Tom’s Take

Did all of that make sense to you? Did you hear me? Did you listen? Video content creation and blog posts are hard tools for communication because we’re cutting out the second part of the communication process. I don’t get to see your understanding or ask questions that allow you to consolidate your knowledge. I have to hope that the topics here are things that you enjoy and understand, even if you have to go back and read them a couple more times. I promise that if you work on the things above in the coming months you’re going to find yourself a better, more active listener with a lot of knowledge gained. And that’s a learning lesson worth listening to.

1 thought on “Learning To Listen For Learning

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