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Excuse Me- I Was Listening

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Insights provided by Howamigoing

I've known for a little while now that I can be a bad listener. But it wasn't until recently that I realised just how damaging being a bad listener can be as a friend, boss, husband.


Listening well is tough

Most people prefer to talk rather than listen. And because of that, we're drawn to good listeners and frustrated by bad listeners. I can't think of anyone who listens too much. But listening is much more than being quiet while others speak. It's very different to hearing. Hearing is sensory. Automatic. Subconscious. Listening is a conscious activity. It's deriving meaning from what you've heard. It's trying to understand the underlying thoughts, the feelings and the emotions behind someone's words. It requires empathy and sincerity It takes a lot of concentration and requires you to focus completely on the talker and put all distractions aside. To do this subconsciously is a skill. And a bloody tough one at that to master. Unfortunately, if we feel like we're not being listened to, there's next to no chance of us feeling psychologically safe and opening up in conversation. That's why listening is the most powerful part of communication.


Nobody tells you you're a bad listener.

When I'm excited, tipsy, anxious or impatient (or all the above) I catch myself interrupting others with a quick quip or dry joke. People laugh and the conversation gets back on course, big deal right? I've changed my view on this - owing to this book by James Borg and some mentorship and coaching from Mónica Esgueva.

The four fails of listening

Do you ever become these people? Think about it - because it's unlikely anybody will tell you.

1. Interrupting Ian

We think at the rate of 600-800 words per minute. But we speak at 120-150 words per minute.

So we think about 4-5x faster than we speak. This means that when we're the listener, we're always ahead of the talker. Our mind has time to wander and ponder. We feel like we're one step ahead of the talker and all the more clever for efficiently jumping in to cut the conversation short. Do you like to be interrupted? Not likely. Don't do this. Don't be Interrupting Ian.

2. Finishing Fran

When the talker struggles to find a word and we finish their sentence, it can feel like we're listening because it shows we're paying attention, but there is a serious drawback. Quite often, we will guess the wrong ending. And because most people are too polite to say "No that's not what I meant you idiot!" they'll say "yeeaahhh I guess so." We've just won the mic but lost the match. Hearing is not listening. Paying attention is not listening. Be patient, be curious. Let people come up with their own words. You might learn something.

3. Premature Pete

Related to Finishing Fran, it can be tempting to quickly jump in and offer the talker some advice. We know their background, we've heard it before, we are wise and all-knowing. Except that, we can't be all-knowing and give the best advice until we've asked a few clarifying questions. Resist the urge to rush in with your 2 cents. The world is full of people wanting to give advice. Be the person that approaches each conversation with an open-mind and blank sheet of paper.

4. Loving Lucy

Ever been part-way through talking about your last holiday when someone completely steals the show and attention, often one-upping you? "It's so good to see you! How was your trip? What was the highlight?" - Lucy "It was amaaazing, first we went to Mykonos..." - Traveller "...OMG I looooove Mykonos we go there every year did you go to that restaurant on the water what's it called oh Scorpios yeh that's it Scorpios it was sooo good (!) I wanna go back..." - Lucy "...OMG Scorpios that was OUR favourite place we ate there like every day! Sorry sorry we've totally interrupted you!" - Lucy's intern "Ahh yeh, no worries. So, yeh, Mykonos was really good." - Traveller sighs We get it. You have an opinion on the matter and you absolutely must share it before the moment passes. Else you'll forget, and, heaven forbid! But, let your opinion rest for now. Be a big person and accept that your role as listener isn't over until the talker stops talking (a 1-second pause doesn't count).


How to improve my listening?

The substitute to the four listening fails is paraphrasing. As listener, let there be a few seconds of silence after the talker finishes. Then ask a clarifying question that seeks to confirm (or otherwise) the meaning they're wanting to convey. If you find yourself losing interest and your mind wandering while listening, pay extra attention to the body language that accompanies the talker's words:

  • Where are they looking?

  • ​How are they standing/ sitting?

  • What's happening with their volume?

  • ​What's going on with their shoulders?

As humans, we are reeaaaallly good at extracting meaning from non-verbal cues. We're good at it because only 7% of information transmission comes from words when the topic carries some ambiguity or feelings. Most of our judgment comes from observing body language and tone of voice.

Start your reply with

  • It seems/ you seem as though...{repeat a summary of what you just heard}

  • ​It feels as though...{repeat a summary of what you just heard}

  • It looks as though...{repeat a summary of what you just heard}

You'll be surprised at how often their opening "statement" was just the tip of the iceberg, and how often there's so much more going on under the surface. You'll be surprised at how often this causes the talker to do a take two of what they just said. Even if they know what you're doing, they'll be grateful for the extra airtime (remember that we humans prefer to talk than listen).

Staying accountable

I'm planning to enlist my teammates to hold me accountable each time I interrupt them, finish their sentence, hijack a conversation or offer premature advice. I speak with them the most each day and while I'm better than I was 12 months ago, I've certainly got some room for improvement! I don't expect them to always be honest though - it's hard telling the boss face-to-face that he's out of line - so I'll be gathering anonymous feedback about my listening from the whole team at the end of each month. I'd be happy to share this feedback with anyone that wants to see it. Ultimately though my improvement is gonna come down to a lot of daily self-awareness and holding myself accountable. I'm hoping that this article will serve as a long-term reminder (i.e. un-retractable online post-it note) about this commitment I'm making to myself and the journey I'm about to embark upon. Thanks for listening :-)


About the author

Julian is the CEO of Howamigoing, a software company that helps people in small businesses get better feedback more often. Howamigoing was recently voted in the UK's Top 100 Startups and in the Top 10 HR Tech Solution Providers in Europe for 2019. Julian previously worked in Mergers and Acquisitions at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, and he served as a fundraising committee member for the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. Julian is an Aussie living in London, passionate about friends, feedback, food, wine, improv, comedy and science.


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