Friday, August 25, 2020

Taking Time Out to Listen

Anyone who has spent time in a working environment knows that most arguments aren’t fundamentally about status, power, money, broken promises, or even misbehavior. They are about what someone said. What people say to (or say about) one another causes the majority of misunderstandings, anger and broken hearts. Feuds and arguments are about what was said and what was heard—especially if the two don’t match up. Even disputes about status and power usually come down to someone saying (or being reported as saying) something that didn’t acknowledge the other person’s standing.

There must be tens of thousands of books, papers, and blog postings on the subject of better communication. Most of them are about techniques. There’s a natural tendency to assume that when communication is poor, some lack of skill or missing piece of know-how is the culprit. Although that may sometimes be part of the issue, the most common problem with communication is not lack of technique, but lack of time and attention.

Haste, pressure, superficiality, and anxiety—all the hallmarks of today’s business environment—undermine people’s capacity to pay attention. It’s so tempting to try to save time and energy by skimming. If you think you know what that other person is going to say, you maybe don’t need to listen to whatever is said. You pick up on the first few words, jump way ahead, and are polishing your own comments well before the other person has finished. Even if you do hear most of what is being communicated, you may still interpret the words incorrectly, because all those prior expectations and mental shortcuts get in the way. Watch what happens in a group. One person is speaking, but no one is truly listening. Either they are thinking up what they are going to say when they next get a turn, or they’re “tuned out” and thinking about something else. Whole meetings can pass during which no one fully listens to anyone else. Is it any wonder people go away with radically different recollections of what was discussed?

It seems to me that the vast majority of people can both communicate and receive input from others very well indeed, so long as they are interested enough to give the process sufficient attention and time. When they are dealing with something—or someone—that truly interests them, they weigh every word, often going over them again and again for hours. Given this amount of attention and time, not only is all the meaning extracted from whatever was said or written, people routinely insert all kinds of extra meanings and intentions that were never there in the first place. A love letter from someone you care about deeply, or a message from someone you feel strongly attracted to, may be read and re-read hundreds of times. A CV or covering letter for a job you desperately want will be re-drafted and polished again and again. In both cases, time is not seen as much of a consideration compared to the need to get it just right.

Of course, I’m not trying to say there are no skills involved in communication; or that lack of the right skill never leads to problems in expressing yourself or understanding someone else. There will be times when someone is trying extremely hard to get their message across and is held back primarily by lack of the required skills. What I am wondering about is whether that is generally the only, or even the primary cause of communication issues.

For many years, I worked with trying to understand people’s values and how they impacted behavior. One of the results that I often came across was that when people don’t value something—whether it’s a need, a result, or even someone else’s primary concern—they tend to blank it out of their consciousness. It’s as if their mind picks up the topic and decides, “Hey, this doesn’t matter. I have better things to think about. I don’t need even to pay this a minimal amount of attention. I can just ignore it.” It becomes a blind spot in their consciousness. Like an e-mail filter for spam, anything coming with that matter in the subject line is automatically erased. You never get to see it.

Whenever this happens, there are immediate consequences. Firstly, people don’t notice the topic in other people’s communication. Even if it is brought to their attention, they quickly lose interest and “tune out.” Secondly, if they observe behavior in others that’s due to whatever it is they themselves don’t value, they attribute the causes of that behavior to something else. It’s as if their minds tell them no one could possibly act because of that reason. There has to be another one.

Here’s what I see happening in many organizations:
  • The natural process of “tuning out” topics, values, and motivations you don’t care about is given a massive boost by pressure and assumed lack of time. Not only do you feel whatever it is isn’t important in itself, you don’t feel you have time or attention left for anything that isn’t obviously of the highest priority. As a result, much of what is being “broadcast” by others is instantly filtered out by your mind before it even reaches consciousness.

  • Although just about everyone is doing the same thing, all those individuals are tuning out different parts of the broadcast. While they tune in to the parts that are important to them, you are tuning out those same parts. However, they assume you have ignored those bits (and them, and their needs and concerns) deliberately. They respond as if you heard, paid close attention, and chose in full consciousness to ignore something they see as highly visible and important. You have to be stupid, careless, or deliberately trying to insult them.

  • Anger and frustration arises because those who do value whatever is being ignored assume they and their concerns are being deliberately tossed aside.

  • The organization’s culture acts in just the same way. The greater the sense of pressure and stress, the less time, attention, and tolerance there is for anything automatically assumed to be “fringe,” of minor interest, eccentric, or just plain irrelevant. These items aren’t consciously rejected. They simply never make it through the organization’s mental filters to the point where the system notices them.

  • This “deafness” and blindness blanks out a wide range of items that might be extremely important. When organizations act as if what is plain to everyone else is completely invisible and inaudible to them, that is exactly what is happening. Those matters are invisible. They’ve been automatically erased before anyone could notice them.
As with so many other problems of today’s organizations, the only way out of this cycle of miscommunication, frustration, and anger is to slow down, pay more attention, and listen even to (maybe especially to) whatever seems obviously unimportant to you. You are not the sole measure of truth and relevance, and your values are not the correct criteria for deciding what matters in the universe at large.

If individuals or organizations are allowing themselves to become habitually deaf and blind to large areas of reality, no amount of communication skill training is going to help. They don’t believe they have a problem. From their point of view, they aren’t missing anything—at least, nothing of the slightest importance—and surely no one has time to pay attention to every useless bit of information being tossed around by others. If they learn any new skills, they won’t use them to remedy their blind spots. They’ll only apply them to whatever already seems important to them.

What’s needed is not more skill (yet), but greater willingness to open your mind and senses to unfamiliar topics, including those currently assumed to have little or no value. That takes time and attention. Today’s macho, action-obsessed organizations already apply little enough of either outside the narrowest range of short-term concerns. There’s nothing quite so dehumanizing as a closed mind . . . unless it’s a mind held shut by pressure applied from outside by anxiety, stress, pressure, and a rigid organizational or social culture.

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galba bright said...

You have constructed a very persuasive and thought provoking argument. It's easier for organisations to invest money in skills training, rather than encouraging people to consider the deeper issues.

8:22 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Galba. I agree that organizations tend towards superficial responses, especially if they seem simple. Sadly, they don't usually work very well.

9:11 AM  

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