Listening, 4: No One Listens

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listening parrots

This is the listening series. Two posts ago, we left off on this question:

From how many discussions have I hewn away value by opening my mouth ahead of someone with something more valuable to say?

This question has completely changed my perspective on my goals in a discussion and how to reach them.

For in-person discussions, I have consciously shifted my focus. Instead of optimizing for my own airtime, I optimize for my two other things: my learning and my impact. In the last post, we talked about learning. We learned something troubling:

It turns out that, even if people have asked me what I have to say, they rarely notice if I never answer.

That sounds inaccurate, doesn’t it?

Surprised me, too.

Let’s talk about that more in the next post.

We have now arrived at the foretold post.

Ultimately we’ll discuss how you can increase your impact without butting into discussions, like we talked about over here. First, though, we need to address why butting into discussions doesn’t work that well for getting your ideas heard.

Here’s why: nobody is listening. It’s actually hard to fathom how rarely anybody is listening. In this post I’ll tell you what I’ve observed. In the next post we’ll talk about why that might be, and what you can do with it.

So what am I talking about when I say that people don’t notice when I answer their questions?

A Study of One

For a few months, I documented how often people cared what I had to say. I noticed something fascinating: people only cared what I had to say in about 25% of the cases where they asked me.

In about half of cases where they asked me, they (or another interlocutor) interrupted me or changed the subject right in the middle of my answer, and no one seemed too concerned for me to finish.

In half of the remaining cases, the discussion included other signs that what I said would not factor into my interlocutor’s thinking.

pie chart
What happened when people asked me questions: 89 recorded occurrences

Some of the signs:

A) My interlocutor told me their answer to the question without acknowledging my answer. So they asked the question to make their reply the subject of conversation, not to know my answer. They usually didn’t even register my answer.

Chelsea, couldn’t they be doing this to get your feedback? In theory, sure.

In practice, this isn’t how people present their ideas when they’re willing or prepared to accept suggestions to reconsider.

I collected some data to back that up: these situations have only ended positively when I either validated their answer (agreed with it and said it’s good) or didn’t respond to it (in which case people usually inferred that I agreed, even if that wasn’t the case).

B) My interlocutor commented that my answer made sense, but ended up doing it their way instead without further discussion.

These people were focused on saying their reply, not hearing mine; they may not have even registered it.

The difference between case B and case A is sugarcoating. “That makes sense” is a verbal tic that gives the appearance of having listened. We do this when we say “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” to Mom on the phone while putting away groceries and not paying that much attention to what she’s talking about.

C) My interlocutor responded immediately with “I hear you, but…” followed by a statement rather than a question.

They didn’t have any follow-up questions; they had already decided to disregard my reply. No amount of doubling down on my part has gotten my interlocutor to consider what I have said. I don’t double down these days.

These signs sound subtle, but they’re dead giveaways between actual listening and listening theater.

Why do you think there’s so little listening? I recommend taking a moment to consider it.

I have an idea about why. We’re not quite there yet. We’ll talk about it in the next post.

In the meantime, let’s keep talking about the futility of spouting our ideas in discussion.

If people are only prepared to think about my response in 25% of cases where they asked me a question, how often do you suppose people in a discussion think about something I said when they didn’t ask me?

I’m sure it happens. But it’s rare enough that I would never count on it.

This sounds sad—and it would be sad, if speaking up during discussions were an important means by which I attempted to exert impact. But since it doesn’t work for me, I have divested from butting in during discussions. I’ve figured out other ways to generate impact. We’ll get to them in future posts.

Meanwhile, I can spend discussion time listening, learning, and sipping my tea. I know I’ll get a chance to speak when someone asks me—or not! It doesn’t matter! Discussions aren’t a primary means of influence for me anymore!

There are exceptions where I do speak up unbidden.

I will speak up of my own accord when I think that my input is necessary.

Here are several scenarios that do not qualify as my input being necessary:

  • I am confident that I have good ideas about this (so does everyone; mine are not necessarily essential to this discussion)
  • Others have this same idea, and I want to be the one to say it (by definition, I don’t have to talk since someone else will say the same thing)
  • Something somebody said reminds me of a story from my own life (So what?)
  • I have thought of a witty joke (most jokes, especially ‘witty’ ones, end up being not as funny as I think they are)

For my input to qualify as necessary, two conditions must be met:

  1. After waiting a while, I’m fairly sure no one else is going to say this, and
  2. someone will face consequences if this goes unsaid.

I will speak up exactly one time about this thing.

There are three cases where this happens:

 1. Somebody else was trying to talk and got talked over. I will use what power I have to make sure that they get the floor back. And once I’ve done that, I make sure I listen to what they have to say. That I listen to them feels especially critical, given that I know how unlikely it is that anybody else is really listening to them.

2. The person who will face the consequences is part of the discussion. This happens with technical decisions. If the person on the hook for this decision argues with my point of view, I let them do it their way. I want to help, but if I’m not doing the work, I don’t try to force how it’s done. We’ll talk more about this in a future post.

3. The people who will face the consequences aren’t in the discussion. This happens with ethical or inclusion-related concerns. Almost never does a protracted back-and-forth inside of one discussion get people to change their minds on this kind of thing. Either the group gets the message the first time and agrees to do something about it, or they don’t.

But isn’t it stressful to never (or almost never) be heard?

To me, it’s not worth claiming the speaking floor because I know people won’t listen, and I also know that when people ask for my views they mostly won’t listen. If I can’t make myself be heard in a discussion, how am I supposed to effect change?

We’ll talk about that in the upcoming posts.

Meanwhile, here’s the question that I think deserves your consideration:

When you ask people questions, what are you looking for? 

  • Do you exhibit any of the listening theater tells discussed above?
  • Are you looking for validation, hoping they’ll say a specific thing, or hoping to hear their stories and wisdom?
  • Have you done any work to prepare for the possibility that they might deliver the surprising news that you need to change something, or work on something?
  • How quickly, once someone starts answering you, do you feel compelled to respond?

Rather than reflect on that right now, try to notice any patterns in the questions you ask over the next few days.

Then, in the next post, we’ll talk about how I have changed the way I interact with people in a discussion to productively impact the outcome.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The Rubric Post (the post that finally broke the curse on my blog and beat out the “Testing RecyclerViews in Android” post for total views)

Anger and Sadness in the Workplace (this was the second post on this blog to beat “Testing RecyclerViews in Android” for total views)

Leading a Software Rewrite (believe it or not, there’s a tie-in to listening in this piece)

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