Why Listening is Hard and How to Think Critically

The thought process that guides my work starts with why — the reasons and or questions that underlie a problem (yes, problem and not opportunity just yet) — and how to go about breaking it down into parts we can address.

Make sense first, then make do, before you go about what you're making of it.

When the craze over monitoring tools for social media was at a high, we explored reasons why listening is so much more than monitoring.

Listening is hard

The most obvious reason why we focus so much on monitoring and jump into analyzing is that listening is hard.

If you think about it, most of our listening happens via reading today. We spend so much time online, posting to social networks, publishing content, and exchanging written messages with each other, that we have learned to be on message — our message — well.

Dave Winer lists a few ways you can tell whether you're listening or not in a recent post. It's worth repeating the points:

  1. The person you think you're listening to tells you that you're not.
  2. If you find yourself hearing someone familiar talking through them, you're not listening.
  3. Try this puzzle. Most people don't get the right answer. I didn't. (I didn't, either)
  4. Read this piece. See how bad inference can be.
  5. The best way I can summarize this point from Winer's post is if you're not sure about what I'm saying, ask before you infer.
  6. Another clue is that the topic is something that you find repulsive. (I'm reminded of a valuable point Bud Caddell made here about the seven-layer-deep corporate BS problem and why confronting the brutal facts of the problem is the hallmark of good leadership)

Written words do a lot of heavy lifting for us these days. If we haven't met, you probably have formed a completely different idea of who I am based upon your references, cultural inferences, and biases.

This also explains why the misunderstanding over how people like to connect in social networks, especially LinkedIn. "Hey, I retweeted your article, so we should connect here," is based upon the assumption that we both use social networks in the same ways.

(why I published my preferences)

We make up stories in our heads to explain situations based upon our worldview.

Listening is an important entry point in building relationships. To process information and learn, we need to engage critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking?

Farnam Street summarizes the teachings of Hamilton College Professor Paul Gary Wyckoff:

  1. The ability to think empirically, not theoretically.
  2. The ability to think in terms of multiple, rather than single, causes.
  3. The ability to think in terms of the sizes of things, rather than only in terms of their direction.
  4. The ability to think like foxes, not hedgehogs.
  5. The ability to understand one’s own biases.

Some of Wyckoff points may seem to be counter what are accepted practices, which further demonstrates how hard it is to first listen, then think critically about what we read.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the rise in popularity of infographics, images/photos, and videos is a testament to the multicultural nature of our reference points. Characters are visual abstractions and thus subject to interpretation. The narrative is mostly going on in the background, though.

Unless we make an effort to ask our realities to explain themselves by suspending judgment and challenging our assumption with better questions, we will continue to find ourselves on the wrong side of misunderstandings, without knowing how to carve a path forward.

We do  most of our listening in isolation, yet we talk about tools that facilitate collaboration. Pushing back is a reaction to being (or perceiving we are) pushed around, yet it often passes for critical thinking.


[image credit]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She is also frequent speaker at
conferences and companies on a variety of topics. To book her for a
speaking engagement click here.

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