Are you talking or hearing?

Do you ever find that people are jabbering away, talking a load of lightweight nonsense? It happens in a pub, and when friends or relatives come round to your house.

There are two kinds of people those who talk a lot, and those who listen.

It’s sometimes called Transmit and Receive mode, from the days of walkie-talkies. If you’re in transmit mode, you aren’t listening. You can miss what people are saying.

In part, it’s the difference between the extrovert and the introvert. But it goes deeper than that. Listeners come in three forms: the Cowed, the Co-operator and the Command mode.

The Cowed is someone who doesn’t have an opinion. They feel that others know more than they do. It’s not their place to intervene or have an opinion.

The Cooperator listens and obeys. That’s what they see as their role. They see it as the natural way of things. They may also be an introvert who simply doesn’t want to engage. They’d rather let others talk.

In Commander mode you engage in what I call ‘boss behaviour’.  Senior bosses watch and listen, albeit briefly. Then they tell you what’s going to happen. You get a feeling that their time is valuable. They don’t mess around.

I was in a taxi in Glasgow with a senior management consultant and several colleagues. Some were chatting to the taxi driver about football results. The consultant was silent. After we got out, I remarked to him that he hadn’t said anything. He turned to me and said curtly but not unkindly, ‘I don’t waste my time on trivia.’ It’s a lesson we can take to heart.

And to make change you have to be in Commander mode. Once you start to create change, you’ll be busier, you’ll need information (because you’ll be in an unfamiliar situation), and you need to be decisive. That’s three reasons to move into in chieftain mode.

Needless to say, there are bad bosses, people who talk a lot and don’t listen. They’re dangerous because their decisions don’t take into account anyone else’s input. So they often miss important news and ideas. They think being a boss means giving instructions – but not gathering information before they get to that point.

You need to engage in active listening. Most people don’t listen. They’re usually just waiting for a gap in the conversation so they can start speaking again. By contrast, an active listener pays close attention to the other person, understands what they’re saying, reflects on what has been said, and responds. They also watch the other person’s body language, to judge their emotion and behaviour; and they provide visual clues, by leaning forward to show engagement, and by nodding or raising an eyebrow. 

And they’re critical. As Jeremy Paxman, BBC TV interviewer, once said: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’

Quantity of talkMaximumMinimalMinimal
Quantity of listeningNot listeningListens for instructionsListens preparatory to making a decision
Conversation styleValues their own opinionsSubordinateBoss
Attitude to timeTime is of no consequence.It’s the boss’ time, so it doesn’t matterTime is precious
ModeTransmitReceiveReceive and Transmit

How to move to Commander mode

  1. Listen closely.
  2. Withhold judgement. Don’t make assumptions. Wait until you have gathered the information before coming to a conclusion.
  3. Reflect and clarify on what has been said. Probe for more information if necessary. Challenge the other person if you think they may be biased or have failed to take relevant information into account. Ask questions if you lack information.
  4. Summarise the conversation. You might say: ‘So we think that XYZ should happen?’ This ensures that you have understood correctly what the other person is saying, and that the other person is in agreement about the way forward.
  5. Take action. Now is the time to commit to a plan. Communicate that clearly to those around you.

In summary: Listen actively. Hear people out. But then decide.

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