Listening in Business - Part 1

By Chris Chittenden

This is part of a series of articles - see previous article.

For us the key to communicating lies not in speaking but in listening. Before we explore this further, it is important for us be clear of our interpretation of listening.

For many people, listening is hearing. You speak the words, I hear them and therefore I have listened to you. This is largely the trap we spoke about last month, when we discussed the "Injection Method". People who employ that method of communication invariably fail to understand that as unique human beings we all interpret what we observe in different ways. We are not computers or machines madly passing bits and bytes between each other, rather we are social beings who use language as a means of living with others and making sense of who we are and how we fit.

Therefore, we have a markedly different interpretation of listening. For us it is an active process of making sense of the world - an act in which we are constantly engaged.

To put it in succinctly:


Let's first look at "hearing". When you speak to me and I am attending to you, I do not just hear the words you say. I will subconsciously take in great deal more - the tone of your voice, the look on your face, your posture and so on. Studies have shown that the words we say make up only a minor part of what we convey, so the first important point is that when we communicate with each other we hear sound with our ears but we observe with all of our five senses.

This then begs the question: "Do we all observe the same way?" At this point, we would like to introduce the notion of "distinctions". A distinction can be defined as something that allows us to distinguish something from a background. As an example, consider what happens if my car breaks down. I get out, open the bonnet and have look to see if I can fix what is wrong. The only problem is that all I see is a whole lot of metal, wires etc. I cannot distinguish different parts of the motor. However, when a mechanic looks at the same motor, they see a completely different scene - spark plugs, carburettor, fan and so on. They have a set of distinctions about the motor that allows them to see things I can not. The same thing applies when we listen to someone speak. Words may mean different things to different people depending on the distinctions they hold around language. For example, if I say "he engaged in an act of locution", you will not be able to begin to make sense of what I am saying unless you are able to put a meaning to each of the words.

So to answer the question we put before, we argue that we all observe events and objects differently depending upon the relevant distinctions we hold.

The importance of this can be seen in the need to understand the distinctions others may hold and then speak to those distinctions. There is no point in using language others do not understand if you want to hold a conversation and connect with them. As Hugh McKay says "It's not what our message does to the listener but what the listener does with our message, that determines our success as communicators."

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© 1999 Chris Chittenden