Listen for What You Can’t Hear

Listening is a disappearing skill. We need to practice and to learn to move beyond what is being said.

The Lost Art

In a world where it has never been easier to shout, shut ourselves in bubbles of likeminded folk and react angrily, listening is becoming a lost art. We no longer listen to understand. If we listen at all, we listen to react.

Many don’t listen because they are wrapped in their ego, their worldview or other distractions from the pressing reality of others. Too many listen only partially to the barest surface of the words said.

Active listening is essential in a world that gives us access to many more diverse opinions than ever. Active listening is an essential tool to navigate complexity and to truly meet the needs of others. We need to engage others as unique people that we mostly don’t know and mostly don’t understand. We need to listen for tone and observe body language.

We need to question. We need to confirm understanding and we need to explore ambiguities and differences, not by accident but as a deliberate part of process of understanding. True active listening will expose our biases and assumptions creating a much stronger foundation for a relationship.

Listen for What You Can’t Hear

The most challenging part of listening is listening for what you can’t hear. What you can’t hear is what never gets said and may not even be discoverable in tone and body language.

This form of active listening involves listening for the architecture of the speaker’s choices, their worldview and their drivers. If that is not clear or is potentially doubtful in what is being said, then this active listening increases in importance.

Listening for what you can’t hear is an exercise of actively engaging with all the clues and using those clues to prompt new questions and new lines of discussion to draw out perspectives. Clues may include:

  • choice of language: language that is more vague or more precise than expected can be a clue to missing information. Choice of words can also signal mindsets, worldviews or intent that require further discussion.
  • gaps of information or missing logic: no matter how favourable the discussion is, gaps in the other party’s logic is a topic that requires further exploration. People get conned because they are told what they want to hear. Deals don’t stick when people make mistakes of fact or logic that they discover later.
  • incongruities: big or small inconsistencies are always worth further exploration.
  • bluffing: Exaggerated confidence is a signal to ask more questions. Always call a suspected bluff
  • unnecessary haste: rushing might be a factor of life but it is a poor contributor to important conversations. Explore the need for haste.
  • delay: avoiding bad news can be a common cause of delay. It’s always better to know and address it earlier.
  • discomfort: intuition is an important tool in any discussion. If you or the other party in a conversation seem uncomfortable, it is worth exploring that experience. Something is amiss. Great understanding is build on trust, not discomfort.

Many years ago I inherited a deal that was being negotiated from a colleague. Our counterparty was super-enthusiastic and really keen to rush the deal to conclusion. My colleague explained it was all good to go and I just had to get it all signed. Everything sounded great.

When I met the counterparty to discuss finalising the deal, I felt uncomfortable about the way he described the partnership. It didn’t quite reflect the terms of the written document. It was a big deal and our organisation needed the deal to close. When I reflected on the discomfort, I realised I didn’t understand why the other organisation was doing the deal on these terms. Rather than ignore that discomfort, I asked a few questions. It quickly became apparent that the counterparty had misunderstood the deal and would never be able to proceed on the terms. Signing that deal would have been a waste of time. We won so much trust and a much better partnership by resolving the misunderstandings before they embarrassed our partner.

We need to be active listeners who seek to understand in all our interactions. The bigger challenge is to learn to listen for what is not said.

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