Listening, Part 1: Introduction

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Tech is full of bad listeners, isn’t it?

Has this ever happened to you? You express an idea in a meeting, and folks ignore it. Later, someone repeats the idea, and suddenly everyone thinks it’s gold.

How about when your team wants to try something you’ve already tried? You tell them why it didn’t work, but do it anyway. Surprise: it doesn’t work! Meanwhile, you’re hunched over your desk thinking “No shit, Sherlock.

Tell me if you’ve ever found yourself doing this: responding to a slack message or email chain by going up earlier in the chain, copying a piece of text you sent in the past, and then pasting it into your new response.

Isn’t that hilarious? (Come on, it’s a little funny).

I used to think I was good at listening, and everyone else needed to get their act together.

That was before the breakup.

The breakup didn’t have anything to do with listening. (At least, it didn’t have much to do with listening). Listening, instead, got involved in the aftermath, while I curled up on couches holding steaming mugs of tea, doing mental donuts over the same boring thoughts for hours.

My poor friends (get you some good friends, folks) sat by and listened.

Some friends offered me advice, most of which I didn’t take because I wasn’t mentally prepared to absorb the information.

Some friends tried to get my mind off things, which mostly didn’t work, because I still had a lot of things to say—again.

Some friends sat across from me and listened to my eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth pass over the same train of thought. These sit-alongs gave me a bearable way to pass time until I healed enough to do anything else.

And some friends asked me questions: how I was feeling, what I was thinking, whether I was eating.

You might know Stephen Covey and his work. He has an oft-repeated quote:

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

What was I looking for out of those hours of my friends’ lives?

Sometimes, emotional exhaustion makes it easier than usual to answer questions like this.

I specifically was not looking for my friends’ replies. I couldn’t accept their wisdom or insight, or even sympathy or commiseration. Instead, I was looking to avoid feeling alone and unloved. If my friends wanted to deliver wisdom, insight, sympathy, or commiseration on the side of that, they could only get it into my brain as a question.

Isn’t that weird? It would be easier on both of us for me to accept the thought that they’ve had on my behalf. But no; they have to translate what they want me to realize into a form that will lead me to the thought on my own, while I’m supposedly telling them something.

In my work relationships, I typically did no such thing. People pay for my expertise, right? So I’d go into work conversations looking to reply. I thought of my answers and opinions as contributions.

Could it be that my replies weren’t always as contributory as I thought they were? 

For a while, I put this inconvenient dissonance out of my mind. After all, I had a breakup to get over, and (thank goodness) work to do. But I couldn’t shake the idea that I had something to explore in the connection between listening and having folks listen to me.

So I started deliberately practicing my listening skills: at work, on non-work projects, and with friends in social settings.

The more I practiced, the more the fabric of my network started to look different to me. My tactics for personal and professional development changed. I reduced my work stress, learned more in professional settings, forged stronger relationships with colleagues, and got more done to boot.

So I’m writing a series about what I have changed, and what has consequently changed around me. Hopefully, what I have to say will feel contributory for at least one of you 😊. It starts right here.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The rest of the careers category (bound to include something worth reading)

The series about reducing job interview anxiety (especially for folks with a little experience)

The cost-effectiveness of pair programming (for folks who feel strongly drawn to working with others!)

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