“Are you listening? Say something!”

[Note: J. Michael Hammond suggests that I note right at the top of this post that the dictionary definition of listen does not restrict the word to the mere noticing of sounds. In the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as others, an extended and more active definition of listening is also given. It’s that extended definition of listening I am writing about here.]

I’m tired of hearing the simplistic advice about how to listen one must not talk. That’s not what listening means. I listen by reacting. As an extravert, I react partly by talking. Talking is how I chew on what you’ve told me. If I don’t chew on what you say, I will choke or get tummy aches and nightmares. You don’t want me to have nightmares, do you? Until you interrupt me to say otherwise, I charitably assume you don’t.

Below is an alternative theory of listening; one that does not require passivity. I will show how this theory is consistent the “don’t talk” advice if you consider that being quiet while other people speak is one heuristic of good listening, rather than the definition or foundation of it. I am tempted to say that listening requires talking, but that is not quite true. This is my proposal of a universal truth of listening: Listening requires you to change.

To Listen is to Change

  1. I propose that to listen is to react coherently and charitably to incoming information. That is how I would define listening.
  2. To react is to change. The reactions of listening may involve a change of mood, attention, concept, or even a physical action.

Notice that I said “coherently and charitably” and not “constructively” or “agreeably.” I think I can be listening to a criminal who demands ransom even if I am not constructive in my response to him. Reacting coherently is not the same as accepting someone’s view of the world. If I don’t agree with you or do what you want me to, that is not proof of my poor listening. “Coherently” refers to a way of making sense of something by interpreting it such that it does not contradict anything important that you also believe is true and important about the world. “Charitably” refers to making sense of something in a way most likely to fit the intent of the speaker.

Also, notice that coherence does not require understanding. I would not be a bad listener, necessarily, if I didn’t understand the intent or implications of what was told to me. Understanding is too high a burden to require for listening. Coherence and charitability already imply a reasonable attempt to understand, and that is the important part.

Poor listening would be the inability or refusal to do the following:

  • take in data at a reasonable pace. (“reasonable pace” is subject to disagreement)
  • make sense of data that is reasonably sensible in that context, including empathizing with it. (“reasonably sensible” is subject to disagreement)
  • reason appropriately about the data. (“reason appropriately” is subject to disagreement)
  • take appropriate responsibility for one’s feelings about the data (“appropriate responsibility” is subject to disagreement)
  • make a coherent response. (“coherent response” is subject to disagreement)
  • comprehend the reasonable purposes and nature of the interaction (“reasonable purposes and nature” is subject to disagreement)

Although all these elements are subject to disagreement, you might not choose to actively dispute them in a given situation, because maybe you feel that the disagreement is not very important. (As an example, I originally wrote “dispute” in the text above, which I think is fine, but during review, after hearing me read the above, Michael Bolton suggested changing “dispute” to “disagreement” and that seemed okay, too, so I made the change. In making his suggestion, he did not need to explain or defend his preference, because he’s earned a lot of trust with me and I felt listened to.)

I was recently told, in an argument, that I was not listening. I didn’t bother to reply to the man that I also felt he wasn’t listening to me. For the record, I think I was listening well enough, and what the man wanted from me was not listening– he wanted compliance to his world view, which was the very matter of dispute! Clearly he wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted, and the word he used for that was listening. Meanwhile, I had reacted to his statements with arguments against them. To me, this is close to the essence of listening.

If you really believe someone isn’t listening, it’s unlikely that it will help to say that, unless you have a strong personal relationship. When my wife tells me I’m not listening, that’s a very special case. She’s weaker than me and crucial to my health and happiness, therefore I will use every tool at my disposal to make myself easy for her to talk to. I generally do the same for children, dogs, people who seem mentally unstable, fire, and dangerous things, but not for most colleagues. I do get crossed up sometimes. Absolutely. Especially on Twitter. Sometimes I assume a colleague feels powerful, and respond to him that way, only later to discover he was afraid of me.

(This happened again just the other day on Twitter. Which is why it is unlikely you will see me teach in Finland any time soon! I am bitten by such a mistake a few times a year, at least. For me this is not a reason to be softer with my colleagues. Then again, it may be. I struggle with the pros and cons. There is no simple answer. I regularly receive counsel from my most trusted colleagues on this point.)

A Sign of Being Listened to is the Change that Happens

Introspect for a moment. How do you know that your computer is listening to you? At this moment, as I am typing, the letters I want to see are appearing on the screen as I press the keys. WordPress is talking back to me. WordPress is changing, and its changes seem coherent and reasonable to me. My purposes are apparently being served. The computer is listening. Consider what happens when you don’t see a response from your computer. How many times have you clicked “save” or “print” or “calculate” or “paste” and suffered that sinking feeling as the forest noises go completely silent and your screen goes glassy and gets that faraway grayed out look of the damned? You feel out of control. You want to shout at your screen “Come back! I’ve changed my mind! Undo! Cancel!” How do you feel then? You don’t say to yourself “what a good listener my computer is!”

Why is this so? It’s because you are involved in a cybernetic control loop with your computer. Without frequent feedback from your system you lose your control over it. You don’t know what it needs or what to do about it. It may be listening to something, but when nothing changes in a manner that seems to relate to your input, you suspect it is not listening to you.

Based just on this example I conjecture that we feel listened to when a system responds to our utterances and actions in a harmonious manner that honors our purposes. I further conjecture that the advice to maintain attentive silence in order to listen better is a special case of change in such a way as to foster harmony and supportiveness.

Can we think of a situation where listening to someone means shouting loudly over them? I can. I was recently in a situation where a quiet colleague was trying to get students to return to her tutorial after a break. The hallway was too noisy and few people could hear her. I noticed that, so I repeated her words very loudly that her students might hear. I would argue that I listened and responded harmoniously in support of her needs. I didn’t ask her if she felt that I listened to her. She knows I did. I could tell by her smile.

If my wife cries “brake!” when I’m driving, I hit the brake. The physical action of my foot on the brake is her evidence that I listened, not attentive silence or passivity.

It may be a small change or a large change, but for the person communicating with you to feel listened to, they must see good evidence of an appropriate change (or change process) in you.

Let me tell you about being a father of a strong-minded son. I have been in numerous arguments with my boy. I have learned how to get my point across: plant the idea, argue for a while, and then let go of it. I discovered it doesn’t matter if he seems to reject the idea. In fact, I’ve come to believe he cannot reject any idea of mine unless it is genuinely wrong for him. I know he’s listening because he argues with me. And if he gets upset, that means he must be taking it quite seriously. Then I wait. And I invariably see a response in the days that follow (I mean not a single instance of this not happening comes to mind right now).

One of the tragedies of fatherhood is that many fathers can’t tell when their children are listening because they need to see too specific a response too quickly. Some listening is a long process. I know that my son needs to chew on difficult ideas in order to process them. This is how to think about the listening process. True listening implies digestion and incubation. The mental metabolism is subtle, complicated, and absolutely vital.

Let People Chew on Your Ideas

Listening is not primarily about taking information into yourself, any more than eating is about taking food into yourself. With eating the real point is digestion. And for good listening you need to digest, too. Part of digestion is chewing, and for humans part of listening is reacting to the raw data for the purposes of testing understanding and contrasting the incoming data with other data they have. Listening well about any complicated thing requires testing. Does this apply to your spouse and children, too? Yes! But perhaps it applies differently to them than to a colleague at work, and certainly differently than testing-as-listening to politician or a telemarketer.

Why does this matter so much? Because if we uncritically accept ideas we risk falling prey to shallow agreement, which is the appearance of agreement despite an unrecognized deep disagreement. I don’t want to find out in the middle of a critical moment on a project that your definition of testing, or role, or collaboration, or curiosity doesn’t match mine. I want to have conversations about the meanings of words well before that. Therefore I test my understanding. Too many in the Agile culture seem to confuse a vacant smile with philosophical and practical comprehension. I was told recently that for an Agile tester, “collaboration” may be more important than testing skill. That is probably the stupidest thing I have heard all year. By “stupid” I mean willfully refusing to use one’s mind. I was talking to a smart man who would not use his smarts in that moment, because, by his argument, the better tester is the one who agrees to do anything for anyone, not the one who knows how to find important bugs quickly. In other words, any unskilled day laborer off the street, desperate for work, is apparently a better tester than me. Yeah… Right…

In addition to the idea digestion process, listening also has a critical social element. As I said above, whether or not you are listening is, practically speaking, always a matter of potential dispute. That’s the way of it. Listening practices and instances are all tied up in socially constructed rituals and heuristics. And these rituals are all about making ourselves open to reasonable change in response to each other. Listening is about the maintenance of social order as well as maintaining specific social relationships. This is the source of all that advice about listening by keeping attentively quiet while someone else speaks. What that misses is that the speaker also has a duty to perform in the social system. The speaker cannot blather on in ignorance or indifference to the idea processing practices of his audience. When I teach, I ask my students to interrupt me, and I strive to reward them for doing so. When I get up to speak, I know I must skillfully use visual materials, volume control, rhythm, and other rhetorical flourishes in order to package what I’m communicating into a more digestible form.

Unlike many teachers, I don’t interpret silence as listening. Silence is easy. If an activity can be done better and cheaper by a corpse or an inanimate object, I don’t consider it automatically worth doing as a living human.

I strongly disagree with Paul Klipp when he writes: “Then stop thinking about talking and pretend, if it’s not obvious to you yet, that the person who is talking is as good at thinking as you are. You may suddenly have a good idea, or you may have information that the person speaking doesn’t. That’s not a good enough reason to interrupt them when they are thinking.” Paul implies that interrupting a speaker is an expression of dominance or subversion. Yes, it can be, but it is not necessarily so, and I wish someone trained in Anthropology would avoid such an uncharitable oversimplification. Some interruptions are harmful and some are helpful. In fact, I would say that every social act is both harmful and helpful in some way. We must use our judgment to know what to say, how to say it and when. Stating favorite heuristics as if they were “best practices” is patronizing and unnecessary.

One Heuristic of Listening: Stop Talking

Where I agree with Paul and others like him is that one way of improving the harmony of communication and that feeling of being coherently and charitably responded to is to talk less. I’m more likely to use that in a situation where I’m dealing with someone whom I suspect is feeling weak, and whom I want to encourage to speak to me. However, another heuristic I use in that situation is to speak more. I do this when I want to create a rhetorical framework to help the person get his idea across. This has the side effect of taking pressure of someone who may not want to speak at all. I say this based on the vivid personal experience of my first date with the one who would become my wife. I estimate I spoke many thousands of words that evening. She said about a dozen. I found out later that’s just what she was looking for. How do I know? After two dates we got married. We’ve been married 23 years, so far. I also have many vivid experiences of difficult conversations that required me to sit next to her in silence for as long as 10 minutes until she was ready to speak. Both the “talk more” and “talk less” heuristics are useful for having a conversation.

What does this have to do with testing?

My view of listening can be annoying to people for exactly the same reason that testing is annoying to people. A developer may want me to accept his product without “judgment.” Sorry, man. That is not the tester’s way. A tester who doesn’t subject your product to criticism is, in fact, not taking it seriously. You should not feel honored by that, but rather insulted. Testing is how I honor strong, good products. And arguing with you may be how I honor your ideas.

Listening, I claim, is itself a testing process. It must be, because testing is how we come to comprehend anything deeply. Testing is a practice that enables deep learning and deeply trusting what we know.

Are You Listening to Me?

Then feel free to respond. Even if you disagree, you could well have been listening. I might be able to tell from your response, if that matters to you.

If you want to challenge this post, try reading it carefully… I will understand if you skip parts, or see one thing and want to argue with that. Go ahead. That might be okay. If I feel that there is critical information that you are missing, I will suggest that you read the post again. I don’t require that people read or listen to me thoroughly before responding. I ask only that you make a reasonable and charitable effort to make sense of this.


20 thoughts on ““Are you listening? Say something!”

  1. This rule of listening is quite difficult for the non-introverted to sustain for long periods of time. I’ve always felt that conversation works best when it’s interactive, live, sincere, and reciprocal.

    Then again, I’ve been told my expectations are too high. Sometimes you have to be fake with people who are patently intellectually and emotionally incompatible with your style. I can do that, but I don’t enjoy it.

    So, much like I might not curse at work, don’t expect me to edit for you on my own time, and if it is such a deal breaker if I ever say the “S” word, maybe I’m just not the right person.

    So, listening and waiting to respond is one way to make a person feel heard. It is not appropriate in most conversation that is already working. It’s like a toddler taking a time out because that’s the only way the conversation can work. It’s a remedial measure at best, not a solution.

  2. The advice to be quiet and listen has been helpful for me. I found that I tended to use so much brain capacity formulating a response (yes, I’m an extrovert), I couldn’t effectively listen to the complete idea someone was trying to communicate to me. I found that by delaying my gratification in responding for a few moments, a point would often be clarified without me needing to challenge it.

    [James’ Reply: No, Danny, formulating a response is PART of your listening. This is what my post was about. Yes, it is true that a passively waiting for something to happen may result in clarification. It is ALSO true that it may result in more confusion. But please stop with the crap about “gratification” as if it is some sort of vanity for you to engage in a conversation.

    Of course, it MAY be vanity, but the mere fact that you are responding to me when I talk to you does not mean you are merely gratifying yourself at my expense. Talk! Talk back to me!]

    I think your ideas here are very helpful, especially boiling it down to being coherent and charitable. I will be charitable by not interrupting the moment I have a stray idea, but after I have listened for a bit and thought twice about whether I have an important point to make, I may still interrupt.

    [James’ Reply: Or how about throwing away the “best practice” silliness and learn to make a situational decision about this.]

    Communication between introverts and extroverts requires some compromise. I need to verbalize in order to really understand what I’m hearing (not doing so would be uncharitable of me). And an introvert needs to get their ideas out before being derailed. I don’t think either of those tendencies are absolute, so we can meet in the middle in the way we pace the give and take in a conversation.

  3. Hi James, I’m having a real issue with you stating that talking is part of listening, but I want to make sure I understand you.

    I suppose I can see talking can be a supporting tool in enhancing future listening, but I wouldn’t say that it is in itself listening. Are you saying that talking is a part of listening the same way that my liver is a part of me or the same way that my wife is a part of me?

    [James’ Reply: I’m saying that responding (which potentially means talking, but possibly an internal response with no talking) is an important part of listening in the sense that your liver is an important a part of you. I’m saying if you don’t change at all, even internally, as the result of a message, that is utterly indistinguishable, in every sense, from never receiving the message. AND if you don’t SHOW that you change, somehow, you will look to the person communicating to you as if you had not heard him at all.

    Now, it’s not necessarily true that you MUST talk in order to listen. As I wrote “I am tempted to say that listening requires talking, but that is not quite true. This is my proposal of a universal truth of listening: Listening requires you to change.” But I indignantly reject the idea that talking back is somehow disconnected from and irrelevant to the process of listening. It MAY be disconnected, of course. Talking can be a way of blocking the other guy from speaking. However, to say that it is always or even mostly disconnected from listening or blocks listening strikes me as a myth promoted by people who don’t like being argued with and like to think of arguing as “resisting” information rather than dealing with information. As a person who respects information by talking about it, I resent that myth.]

    Why not point to something like the Satir Interaction Model? http://www.ieee-stc.org/proceedings/2008/pdfs/JB1978b.pdf

    Is there anything in the article that is vastly different from your model?

    [James’ Reply: The Satir Interaction model is consistent with my model, but I go further. I say that listening requires that you change. You cannot be completely indifferent and unaffected by a message and still be said to have listened to it. There is always some kind of change. I also contend that listening requires that you respond coherently and charitably, which is not required (although it is suggested) by the Satir model.

    I like the Satir model and I believe it does not directly contradict my model.]

  4. James, let me expand on what I meant by “gratification”. These are things that I’ve found are relevant for me –

    * When I hear an idea that I know I can refute, I want to do so immediately. But if I wait a bit, I might find out that this erroneous (in my opinion) point is not key to what the other person is trying to say. Having that debate right on the spot could derail the conversation with very little benefit for anyone involved. Basically, this is the “smart alec” tendency that I coach my kids to stop doing. It’s not important for me win an argument just because I can – I want to focus my time on the important points. Of course, if it’s important for me to refute something, I will. Sometimes it’s just an “oh by the way” after we’ve hashed out the important points – I prioritize what points I make in a conversation.

    [James’ Reply: That’s a heuristic. If you present it as such, rather than as a best practice, I have no problem with it.]

    * When I have an idea, I often fear that I will forget it if I don’t verbalize it very quickly. Ideas are often swirling around in my head rapid-fire as I listen to someone. I’ve found that many of these ideas don’t add anything useful to a conversation.

    [James’ Reply: You can’t know for sure what someone else will feel added to the conversation, but in any case, my point is not about adding to the conversation. My point is about listening: that talking is a way of processing what you are hearing and controlling the rate at which you are hearing new information. This is exactly analagous to chewing when you eat, which you presumably do. So, for instance, your reply to me now is something that I should not construe as necessarily being irrelevant to the point of my post, but rather being related to your processing of considering my post.]

    I’ve learned to take a few extra moments to decide whether the idea is a blockbuster that must be shared before I lose it. Sometimes I even realize that the idea is idiotic and saying it out loud would hurt my credibility.

    [James’ Reply: That is a heuristic. Yes. Here is an alternative heuristic: react now. Blurt out what is on your mind. Don’t worry about whether people like you and trust that the right people will like you.]

    * When I’m passionate about a subject, I can tend to dominate a conversation. If I don’t allow others to influence the direction of the conversation as much as I do, I may lose the opportunity to learn new ideas. I don’t learn as much if I give a lecture and drown out all interaction.

    [James’ Reply: Dominating a conversation is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure you may lose opportunities, but you also gain different opportunities. Lectures can be entertaining.]

    I believe there should be balance in a conversation, which is why I appreciate you bringing the pendulum back toward the middle from the position of “listen silently without giving any substantive response”.

    I’m not clear on what your “best practice” comment in your reply refers to.

    [James’ Reply: My “best practice” comments are related to any instance of you or others saying “this is better.” Without context, you can’t make a case that X is better than Y. What I’d like you to do instead, in the context of offering advice to be used by other people in unspecified contexts, is to speak of heuristics. A heuristic is a fallible method of solving a problem. Here is a heuristic for offering a heuristic congruently: say what the problem is, say what your solution is, and say something about the limitations or caveats or dynamics of that heuristic are. But please acknowledge that it is a heuristic, because that means it stands next to other heuristics instead of automatically dominating them.]

  5. Hi James,

    I gave some thought to my own heuristic for listening. The closest I could find that represents it was from a quick search. It seems to be reflective listening but not exactly.

    I do feel the “need” to reflect back to the other person to make sure I fully understanding what they are saying so that my listening really functions. I feel I can’t really listen if I am lost or my understanding of something is different than the speaker. I am thinking of situations like … “Here we then do the test cases.” and responding with “Wait, but what do you mean by test case?” I add to the conversation when it will either further my own understanding or in my opinion give them a way to express what they wanted to say even better. “So, test cases are this and that…” Then I will most likely add my 10 cents. “Have you considered that thinking of this in terms of test cases is prohibiting you from doing this and that….”

    The following link seems to be an excerpt from a book by Dalmar Fisher.


    In the short blurb about reflective listening linked to above, I realized when looking at the “The Choices Made by the Reflective Listener” diagram at the bottom, I seem to reserve the right to change my mind at any moment what my next action will be jumping in and out of reflective listening to other techniques as I see fit in the moment. (This is assuming I understood the diagram correctly.) If I feel that I know enough about what I am listening to I will stop reflective listening and switch to another mode as necessary.

    [James’ Reply: That seems to be a method of listening by subverting your own agenda. It would require quite a bit of commitment to pull off, wouldn’t it? And what about your own agenda?]

    I even find myself reversing the situation when someone is supposed to be listening to me too. I engage them to reflect back what they heard so that I know they were listening (especially if it is important). I must have some internal mechanism that tells me a certain amount of silence by a listener is too long and I need to do something about it.

  6. Your comments make sense to me. I was assuming that pretty much everything is a heuristic, but I will be more clear about framing ideas that way.

    I would like to hear more about your anecdote about the person who said “you’re not listening”. Did anything productive happen in the conversation after that? Again, I’m talking about a conversation, not just the listening part, so I can explore the context of listening.

    [James’ Reply: Communication broke down quickly. But we are two strangers to each other, and in different communities, so it may be more accurate to say that communication was never established.]

    I have a heuristic for responding to someone who accuses me of not listening. This statement is usually an indicator that someone is really frustrated, and that the conversation is going into the weeds. I’ll take the scope a notch higher and find out what the person is frustrated about. This tends to take the discussion in a totally different direction. If they continue to give indications that their frustration is blocking their ability to communicate constructively, then I may end or postpone the conversation. I don’t have much experience with alternate approaches here. Perhaps when I change the scope of the conversation, it could increase the other person’s frustration if they were more engaged in the details of the conversation than I thought.

    [James’ Reply: I accept that. All this is conditioned on whether you even want to communicate with the guy, too.]

  7. I can think of one instance were just silent listening without responding can be of great value. Namely when listening to someone who wants to ease some inner turmoil. Thich Nhat Hanh has a good explanation:

    Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.

    [James’ Reply: I believe I understand. I believe I have done that. But I challenge your claim that you are “not responding.” I think you are responding. You are changing. You are not talking, though… or not talking much.]

  8. I have been re-reading this a couple of times, the comments, and the various links. I have followed an approach rooted in the active listening paradigm that was fashionable in the late 80’s and is still followed in the counselling work space. I have been troubled for many years that people seem to expect the listener to be a passive recipient of their ideas, and be uncritical and open accepting, as if there are no bad ideas.

    I operate on various heuristics, which are focused on communication rather than listening, The suggestion that Listening is of value in of itself is a worry to me. The point of listening is to ensure that a person listening understands what is being communicated, and that the person talking is clear that their point has been communicated.

    [James’ Reply: I feel that understanding is too high a standard. I keep thinking about many technical conversations I have had where I believed I had been listening or I believed I had been listened to, yet understanding was not achieved. You can communicate a mathematical equation completely and correctly to a non-mathematical person, and yet not achieve understanding. Listening is an attempt to understand, though. It is the beginning of that process.]

    This means that it is quite acceptable to be able end a communication with the conclusion I understand what you have said but I disagree with what you mean, and you know that I disagree. The highest quality communication ensures that both parties have a clear unambiguous understanding the position at the end of the communication.

    I feel that the conceit that even when an idea that has been rejected (disproven in a scientific sense), it is deserving of equal respect or balance with the accepted / proven. In these situations I can be abrupt unless the person is presenting a new and reasonable alternative of why the counter position could be true.

    These two points of Communication, and Rational thought. Are the touchstones of my ability to understand and be understood by a wide field of people.

    [James’ Reply: This is well said. Thanks.]

  9. Hi James,

    I get the impression that the topic is very important to you, yet I am not quite sure I get what is at the heart of it, what is _really_ bugging you…
    Are there really serious people that proclaim you should ‘shut up and listen’ (or some polite variant) as a general rule?

    [James’ Reply: Yes. As a man who prizes the dialectical process of learning, I hear this particular advice (shut up, take data in, and do not respond to it) directed at me, personally, on a regular basis. Plus, did you see the link to Paul Klipp’s blog post that I provided? Did you see where I quoted him? Isn’t he saying basically that?

    I would like a theory of listening that works for both extroverts and introverts, rather than a theory based solely on the perceptions and issues of introverts. Let’s look at listening more broadly, please.]

    Maybe they are just generalizing inappropriately? Or they make the statement as a suggestion for the current situation making it only sound like a general rule?

    [James’ Reply: Maybe. I have believed so until recently.]

    Let me sketch briefly my own knowledge about listening issues and maybe you can help me link your experiences to mine:

    I once took a course on communication with a particular focus on a company setting – i.e. you’re trying to communicate with a group of people that you might not otherwise choose to engage with. The class taught us _several_ communication tools, _one of which_ is called ‘active listening’. (This seems to be similar to what other respondents have written about and what Paul Klipp seems to talk about in your quote.)

    This tool may be of use, e.g., in situations where you are not familiar with the other person or there is not sufficient trust between the two of you, or where you are called upon to mediate between two people that lack such familiarity or trust between them. It is _not_ a tool that is necessary, or even useful, in most conversations.

    When you do ‘active listening’, you are of course not sitting there and not respond – vocal or otherwise. However, you responses should help you understand what are the important issues the speaker wants to get across, without challenging the ideas being presented. You would usually try to determine whether you succeeded, by reflecting back to the speaker, as Keith wrote, what you understood in phrases like “If I understand what you are saying, you are concerned with…”, or “It seems to me you’re suggesting…”

    [James’ Reply: That is a nice summary of the active listening technique as I have learned and practice it. It can work apparent magic in some cases. Active listening is a special case that illustrates my conjecture that listening means changing in a manner that is coherent and charitable.]

    It is important at this stage to use speech patterns that indicate you are talking about your understanding of what the speaker said, and not seem to tell them what they think (or even should think). Putting a test related metaphor in: you are trying to build a model of what the speaker is trying to tell you, and refine that model by testing it (e.g. by asking questions to the speaker that help you verify or reject some of the assumptions in your model).

    [James’ Reply: I wouldn’t say testing, in the robust sense. In the active listening technique as taught, the testing component is light, quick, and sympathetic. That is a useful heuristic. Another heuristic, which I am promoting here, is to use robust, critical testing that takes the form of challenging the speaker’s ideas. I’m saying that, too, is listening.

    Not ALL challenging of a speaker’s ideas is listening. And sometimes I slip from listening into attacking, or contributing, or performing, without consciously recognizing or signalling that I am doing so. When I do that, it’s usually a mistake. My process of becoming a better listener is partly a matter of improving my discipline about that.

    But I am a living example that there are practitioners of a form of aggressive learning that qualifies as listening (in the sense that it is part of a process of being changed, coherently and charitably, by the data I receive) yet may look like NOT listening, and which exerts a strong flow control influence on the speaker (just as in a synchronous data link whereby new packets are not accepted until previous packets are processed).]

    Once you see their eyes light up, and stab their fingers in your direction, shouting excitedly “Yes, now you got it; that’s what I meant”, you have reason to believe they felt ‘listened to’.

    [James’ Reply: Whether they feel listened to is a separate issue than whether you have listened. And besides, someone could feel listened to when they have not been listened to. For me, that is a terrible situation. I have felt listened to by certain people close to me who later showed they had not understood me and should have argued with me instead of muttering encouraging phrases. I have experienced this to devastating and lasting effect on me, in my life, which is one reason I am so passionate about the importance of surfacing conflicts early instead of letting the fester until they have become pervasive cancer.

    Maybe I drive away some people with this approach. I accept that. Far worse it is, I believe, to fail to drive away mendacity, manipulation, etc. At least I’m not going to be scammed by telemarketers or their equivalent. If you want to sell bad ideas, I make a poor customer.

    Having said all that, I do use that light form of active listening, especially in low risk situations or when talking to my wife and son about things that matter a lot to them, but not so much to me. In that case, their feelings are much more important than my acquisition of good ideas.]

    It is usually when you start engaging their ideas, challenging them, _before_ they have reached this point, that you will hear accusations of the form “You’re not listening (to me)!”

    [James’ Reply: I agree. But that doesn’t make pretend listening right or good or effective. If people feel listened to when I am doing a good job of listening, that’s great. But if I do a poor job of listening (especially to technical ideas, which is really what I’ve been talking about all along) because I’ve been taking in too much crap and not reacting to it, I fail to see how that makes life better for anybody. It may even feel like an elaborate insult (e.g. “Why the hell didn’t you make that objection an hour ago? What was all that smiling and nodding about?”)

    In other words, if I am editing a source file, I would prefer that my editor watch me and tell me right away when I make a syntax error, rather than politely waiting for me to ask it to compile. And similarly, if someone is explaining some idea in testing to me, and I notice that their idea of what testing is completely contradicts my own, it seems to be wasting my time and their time to let them go on and on without dealing with that fundamental ontological mismatch. I don’t want them to say “you get it!” and then I say “okay, now, everything you just said is wrong.”]

    Of course it is still possible that even using ‘active listening’ you will not be able to communicate in a way that it makes sense to continue the conversation…

    Maybe you could try the following heuristic:
    When people say one should not talk when listening, they are trying to advise me to first reflect back to them that I am trying to understand what is important to them.

    It may fail…

    [James’ Reply: That’s not what Paul Klipp said in his post. But that can be a useful heuristic for helping people feel listened to.]

  10. Hi James, although I agree with what you are saying – I struggle to speak up in these situations. If I don’t understand something, or need clarification, I’m more than happy to question and ask for the speaker to explain – but to stop the speaker mid-flow to disagree with them, or get my own point across I find nearly impossible.

    [James’ Reply: Does that feel like a problem for you? Maybe it’s not a problem. If you feel that you want to interrupt, yet can’t, that’s different.]

    It very much depends on the situation and who I am surrounded by, I simply don’t feel empowered or confident enough to do this. Does it mean I’m not listening? No. On the contrary, I think from my expressions and body language it is obvious that I am either in enthusiastic agreement or in strong disagreement.

    [James’ Reply: I agree, you can show a response without talking.]

    The best kind of speakers notice this and actually stop to ask what I’m thinking – I appreciate this and think it’s a sign of a great speaker/teacher to recognise that the people listening are a diverse group, some are loud and opinionated, some are quiet and reflective, and others might simply be glazed over and in their own world.

    [James’ Reply: Yeah.]

    I think at times there can be a fine line between responding or showing change because you care and the speaker has sparked a reaction in you, and just talking because you love the sound of your own voice.

    [James’ Reply: I wonder about that phrase. Is it wrong to love the sound of your own voice? What do you think it means to love the sound of your own voice? I would not say that I like the sound of my voice so much as when I’m talking I feel that I am projecting my version of order on a situation– which connects me to other people, in some ways, while defending me from other people, in other ways. So, the sound of my voice is, to me, the sound of the possibility of connection and safety that comes from a comprehensible order.]

    I have been listening to speakers in the past and there is always one person who constantly interrupts with their own opinions and stories, this can at times spark conversation and be constructive but on the flip side, if I’ve turned up (or sometimes paid) to listen to someone talk about a specific topic, it can really put me off and make it difficult to concentrate if someone other than the speaker is constantly chirping. I guess those people don’t particularly fit into what you are saying…I just don’t want to jump on and say ‘yeah great, interrupt and express your opinion’ when really at times when people do that I am thinking ‘get back in your box and let the man finish what he was saying, I was listening to that and it was interesting’.

    [James’ Reply: I agree. I need to do a follow-up post on the harmonics of people thinking out loud, together. While I defend the idea of listening-as-speaking, it is a heuristic that can go wrong rather easily.]

    I know it depends on the size of the group, but I would add to what you’ve said about listening – and stipulate that it is not just the audience’s job to listen, but also the speaker – witness the reaction of the crowd, not just the verbal reactions but the visual ones too. Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I don’t care, it doesn’t mean I’m not listening to what you’re saying and it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion of my own.

    [James’ Reply: Well said.]

  11. I (think I) understand and totally agree with your underlying point, James.

    But I also think we should be careful about the meanings of words.

    I’m not saying you’re trying to pull a Humpty Dumpty here (“When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”), but the first dictionary I consulted had three entries for “listen”:

    1. Give one’s attention to a sound.
    2. Take notice of and act on what someone says; respond to advice or a request.
    3. Make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something.

    [James’ Reply: I take the meanings of words seriously, too. Definition 2 fits my meaning. However, I rely upon the Oxford English Dictionary. It includes this definition: “Const. to (unto): to give ear to (= sense 1); also, in extended sense, to give heed to, allow oneself to be persuaded by.” In that sense I am speaking of heeding or something less than that and more toward giving attention, yet more than giving mere attention. There is a decoding step, too.

    As I analyze this, it requires that the listener change state. In fact, this is true even if the listener is artificial, such as Siri or Cortana, although the state changes in those cases are shallow and fleeting.]

    If you were to have started off with something more like “Here’s the dictionary definition of ‘listen’. A lot of people focus on the first and third entries and tell me to shut up and listen. I think they’re full of crap because the second definition is the useful one,” I’d have spent more time internally challenging the actual content of what you were saying rather than just being stuck on whether you had the right to unilaterally define the word ‘listen’. (Metaphorically, I’d have been listening better.)

    [James’ Reply: I hear you. (By which I mean, in this case: good point.)]

    …yeah, that’s not the most useful feedback, but there you go anyway.

    [James’ Reply: It’s pretty useful. I might change the post, actually.]

  12. I think the act of listening can take many forms depending on the context of the conversation and the “agenda” of each of the parties involved. At times we’re involved in an argument of disagreement with someone else and “listening” is merely a waiting period before we can talk again because we think that our idea is right and we just need a change to get our point across.

    I don’t think the art of listening requires an exchange of one person talking and the other sitting still, exclusively. It should be an interactive exchange, which one could argue that we don’t know how to have anymore. But even listening and speaking requires some guidelines and know how.

    Thanks for sharing James.

  13. I found this to be a thorough and well-emphasized piece. Addressing an important element in our society – communication.
    Communication is a tricky bitch. But – it’s not rocket science, once you have a couple bases.
    Initial interest. Expressed. and Comprehended as such.
    Understanding that silence is not rejection or disengagement. If in doubt – check in the other way.
    Silence is at times simply a signal that no relevance (not a bad thing) has been derived from one’s message. Lotta data out there to process. Not every post gets a dissertation.
    Respect. If actively engaged in discourse, see it through or terminate overtly. Going dark can be perceived as rejection of thought and person.
    Sometimes, withdrawal is a message. If you know your communicant can probably get it, and then get it, cool.
    It’s often a good idea to think more than we speak. Too often we speak, with little thought. and sometimes, then, not listen. Problem.
    Respond to direct communiques. I do, unless foul, then my silence is my choice to not reinforce “bad behavior” with attention. Or – call them out on occasion.
    Speak and listen at once. You are not on stage, you are having a conversation. If you are. Which you are.

  14. “Also, notice that coherence does not require understanding. I would not a bad listener, necessarily, if I didn’t understand the intent or implications of what was told to me.”
    Appears there is a missing word here, I would not BE a bad listener?

    [James’ Reply: Thank you, good listener.]

  15. By the way, I just wanted to re-emphasize that I totally dig this post.
    The phrase “Context-Driven Listening” comes to mind.


  16. Great article, but I found the analogies confusing.

    In the WordPress example, you were clearly defining listening by implication, as:

    * Responding to stimuli

    [James’ Reply: Not responding to stimuli, responding to a message. This is not a matter of stimulus/response, because, in humans, between stimulus and response there is choice.]

    * Conforming to your expectations, in that response.

    [James’ Reply: Being coherent, which means responding in a way that coheres with your grasp of the message. That is not merely “conforming to your expectations.” When I speak of responding coherently, I mean that my response must “make sense” in the context of the message received.]

    The example of you and your son only served to clarify that conformity was not bounded by any specific amount of time.

    [James’ Reply: That example shows that I can be listened to even if I don’t get agreement, nor have any control over the understanding of the person listening to me. Where is the conformity there?]

    Yet, above that, you explicitly state that agreement is not essential to your definition. So, I guess my confusion lies in trying to sort out what you think is the difference between conformity to your expectations in an exchange, and agreement with the content of that exchange.

    [James’ Reply: There is never conformity to my expectations. That is not part of listening. Neither is agreement. What there is in listening is attempt to make sense of a message. I don’t promise to understand you. By listening I make a reasonable, charitable attempt to make sense of what you are communicating.]

  17. Regarding David’s post: I agree with you James. When I listen to someone that is sharing an emotional situation the key to that communication is ‘me changing’. I must react to that person or the communication does not occur. Internally I feel something for the person. I find similarities and differences to my own experiences in life. I draw many comparisions. I feel something, maybe empathy. I agree with you David that I might not speak, but I definitely change from the experience. It is not useful for me to be a robot. To sit, listen and not react to another human being is a waste of our time. I love the interaction of listening. It is a two way street. If it isn’t, then don’t bother talking and letting the sound waves hit your ear drums. Change is a required byproduct of the interaction. Otherwise there wasn’t an ‘inter’action.

  18. Hi James
    We met a number of years ago when you presented a couple of courses I sat on.
    I distinctly remember one of the courses I interrupted you a number of times and I felt a couple of other attendees got the hump with me about it.
    Glad to finally know that you were cool about it 🙂

  19. Great post James, it has caused me to examine how I listen. I do have a habit of interrupting people while they’re talking, to dive deeper on something they’ve mentioned, and I can see how that gets annoying. The people who don’t get annoyed and realise that I’m interested in what they’re saying, are the ones that I listen to the most.

    I don’t always come around to the other person’s point of view, but I do gain a deeper understanding of their reasoning. I’m much more likely to respect them and their opinions. By sitting silently I believe I’d learn less about their story, and my silence is usually a sign that I want them to stop talking and go away.


    When I’m listening to someone and it becomes clear that they’re an expert on the topic, and I respect and agree with them, I listen in silence. I’ll either be taking notes or wishing that I had pen and paper. In a group situation the person has no real indication that I’m listening. I may get back to them days, weeks or months later, after I’ve implemented their ideas, or researched the topic further.

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