“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.