Paul Glen: The hazards of literal listening

I was describing the data sources for each field in my colleague's report, when I saw her expression transform from interest to upset. "Is something the matter?" I asked. "You did ask why the report is showing the wrong information. Right?"

She replied, obviously annoyed, "You know that's not what I meant. Please don't be so literal."

After a moment of confusion, I realized that she really wanted to know what we needed to do to fix her report, not a detailed explanation of the failure mode.

At some point, everyone in IT has this sort of conversation. We geeks find this complaint, that we are annoyingly literal, both confusing and unfair. What's wrong with being literal, especially at work? In our work, precision is a virtue. Isn't it disrespectful to presume that you know what someone else is thinking? Wouldn't answering a question other than the one they asked make them think that we don't listen to them? They'd complain about that too.

The fact that this sort of problem is so common should tell us that there's something we're missing, but instead of learning from these episodes, we write off the nongeeks as illogical and difficult. We stick to our self-righteous perspective and refuse to consider what their annoyance tells us. The message we're missing is that we need to master more than one way of listening and recognize which mode is best in a particular situation.

In literal listening mode, we assume that our job is to absorb information. We pay close attention to words, ask clarifying questions to ensure that we understand questions and respond to them exactly as they are posed. We assume that the content of communication is complete, unambiguous, well understood and transparent -- that language is like code.

I think it's safe to say that we as geeks default to literal mode.

Others usually prefer to operate in a more flexible, connected listening mode. Connected listeners pay attention differently, listening to both literal and intended meaning. Connected listeners interpret information with assumptions about context as well and the subjective experience of the person they're listening to, about their emotions, ambitions and constraints. Connected listeners seek to understand what the other person intends to communicate, what's important to them rather than precisely what it was they said.

When our colleagues expect the more adaptable connected mode but instead get literal listening from us, they become frustrated. In those moments, they feel that we're like machines, incapable of relating to them as humans. Sometimes they even feel that we are being condescending, belittling them for their lack of specificity.

So how can you tell which mode you should be in? The simplest cue is to ask yourself, "Are we discussing what technology will accomplish, or how it will work?"

Literal mode is appropriate when discussing how things work, but connected mode is essential for deciding what it will accomplish. When our business colleagues are excitedly imagining a possible future, focusing on mechanics feels like we're crushing their dreams.

The first step to becoming a more flexible listener is to analyze the nature of every conversation and recognize which mode fits best for that moment. When you've mastered this, you'll find that you get invited to be part of more conversations where important decisions are made.

Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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