Anthropological Listening


Have you ever had the distinct feeling that the person you were speaking to wasn't really listening? Were you convinced the person was a million miles away, give or take a hundred thousand? Has it ever gotten so bad that if your words went in one ear and out the other, it would be a step in the right direction?

Do you suppose other people have ever had that reaction when speaking to you?

For some reason, most of us are good at hearing, but really listening—that's another thing altogether. Actually, it amazes me that anyone really listens at all. When I ask groups I speak to how many of them don't consider themselves good listeners, most people raise their hands. Some raise both hands.

I give them credit for their honesty. The reality is that most people, most of the time, are preoccupied, distracted, bored, thinking about what they're going to say next, or more interested in their Blackberry or iPhone than the person speaking to them.

Nevertheless, in working with customers, genuine listening—not just going through the motions—is critical to success. Here are a few suggestions:

Don't jump to conclusions: Jumping is so easy, especially if you're thinking, What does this dingbat want this time? Resist the urge to turn off your mental hearing aid. Genuine listening means not drawing premature conclusions about the person or what the person is saying. Some people never let facts stand in the way of a hasty conclusion. Are you one of them?

Don't interrupt: Make a commitment to keep the old trap shut and simply listen. Test yourself by seeing how long you can do it. At first, 15 seconds will seem like an eternity. Then go for 30. Then an entire endless minute. You already know what you think; spouting off won't help you understand the other person's perspective. Although remaining silent is chomping-at-the-bit difficult, you'll learn much more by listening than by constantly interjecting your own views.

Seek to know more: If you ask questions, you'll end up with more complete information. If you don't have any questions, you can still draw the person out by asking, "What else can you tell me about that?" or "Is there anything else you think I should know?" Asking questions has an added benefit: It demonstrates to your listeners that you really are listening. Not that they had any reason to suspect otherwise, of course.

Make listening a conscious activity: It's natural for your mind to wander, and even more natural to let it. You can reduce mental meandering, however, by cutting it short when you become aware of it. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered, respond immediately with a silent Oops, and resume listening. With practice, you can train a little voice in your head to interrupt your wanderings and bring you back to the present. Do not engage in a conversation with this voice while others are around.

Pretend you're a famous anthropologist: If worse comes to worse, and you'd rather have a root canal than listen for one more second, use this proven technique. Imagine you've just arrived in a remote village as different as can be from where you live. Your mission is to make sense of the natives. They're not like anyone you've ever encountered before so you have to listen carefully. Try it. It works! But do your best to keep a straight face, OK?

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

Great article Naomi. The only thing I would add is, "Listen for assumptions - yours and those of the speaker" Kind of a special case of not jumping to conclusions, but worthy of consideration in itself. Often when you think the person you are listening to is really clueless, if you give them the benefit of the doubt and get to WHY they believe what they believe, they are working with different assumptions about the situation. Then you can ask questions about assumptions and at least one of you will learn something.

July 20, 2010 - 3:53am
Anonymous's picture

Payson, thanks!! Excellent advice, and I agree completely. It makes me realize that whenever you catch yourself thinking that someone is clueless, that's probably a signal to stop and find out about their assumptions. You may not end up agreeing with each other, but at least you'll have a better understanding of what's going on. And as you say, at least one of you will learn something. ~Naomi

July 20, 2010 - 3:54am
Anonymous's picture

"Clueless" is a very harsh, and a rather telling -- about the listener! I prefer to think in terms of listening for clues and asking questions to learn how the speaker's background and experiences have arrived at the position different from your own. Then, there is something to be learned -- by you!

July 27, 2010 - 5:12pm
Anonymous's picture

Cheryl, thanks! Yes, thinking of someone as clueless is a harsh judgment. And it certainly does say a lot about the listener. Alas, it's also a very human reaction. I doubt there are many people who have never ever considered another person to be clueless. Too rarely do we catch ourselves and ask questions to learn more about the other person's position. That's why your advice to listen for clues and ask questions is such an important reminder. In doing so, we're likely to learn a lot -- and a lot that will change our perception of both the person and the person's views. ~Naomi

July 27, 2010 - 5:24pm

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