Want to Really Listen? Unlearn the Scientific Method.

For technology companies, the growth and success of individuals (and the company) can be inhibited by poor communications – somewhat due to that fact that many of the key contributors are engineers or other technical professionals.  These people (and I am one) were educated and steeped in “the scientific method” of discovery and analysis. This method, to state it simply, is:

  • Pick a topic or problem
  • Collect some data
  • Form a hypothesis or model that is consistent with those data
  • Conduct experiments or otherwise collect additional data
  • Test to determine if those data are consistent with the model. If not, change the model or get a new one.
  • Repeat these steps for refinement

This procedure works extremely well for discovering phenomena of nature and inventing new gadgets and systems, but it is a terrible way to listen to people.

The basis of really listening to someone is to try to see the world from his/her model of it. Everyone has a different set of knowledge, emotions, experiences, and probably genetic predispositions from which he/she draws a unique world view. Furthermore, each person is sure that the view he has is the correct and proper one; and he is often frustrated that other, seemingly intelligent people don’t see it the same way.

When one is using the scientific method to listen, he is usually starting with a preconceived notion of what the speaker is trying to say, a notion based entirely on the listener’s world view. He generally “experiments” with this model by asking “closed” questions – yes/no or multiple choice – to try to validate his model.

Imagine that your family doctor listened in this way:

Patient: “Doc, I have a problem. Can you help me?”

Doctor: “You are pale and seem to be overweight. Do you feel any chest pain?”

Patient: “No. . .uh, I don’t think so. Maybe a little pressure, but. . .”

Doctor: “Do you have any tingling or numbness in your left arm?”

Patient: “Er, it seems to be normal. . .”

Doctor: “Do you feel any palpitations or rapid heartbeat?”

Patient: “Maybe a little after my coffee in the morning, but. . .”

Doctor: “Are you willing to take an EKG stress test on a jogging machine?”

Patient: “I would, but the problem I came to see you about is a sprained ankle!”

As soon as you start selling, you stop listening

The exchange above may seem ludicrous and unlikely, but we see this type of conversation in the business world every day, particularly during sales calls. And in some sense, most business conversations involve some kind of sale. Each person is usually trying to sell a product, a service, an idea, an opinion or a call to action. As he “listens”, each person is subconsciously thinking “how does what she is saying validate or affect my world view?” The result is that very few people really listen.  They are using some form of the scientific method: Collect a few statements from the speaker; rapidly form an opinion based on my world view; validate those opinions with closed questions.

The keys to real listening are:

  1. Try to understand the speaker’s underlying world model
  2. Ask only open-ended, non-presumptive questions
  3. Postpone forming an opinion
  4. Repeat what the speaker said –verbatim!
  5. Don’t assume implications – ask the next question

The first action is to try to put aside as many presumptions as possible and see the point from the speakers world view. It may take some probing questions to do so, but the questions should be very open-ended.  Never start with a presumptive statement that the speaker did not make. Also, don’t presume that you know all of the implications to the answers given to you; instead, probe further.

Examples of open-ended and probing questions are:

  • Why?
  • How did that happen?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • What does that imply to you?

If your question is too long, then you are probably injecting some of your own world view or some presumption or assumed implication. In the extreme, news reporters and prosecutors are well-known for trying to trap interviewees through implication-laden questions like: “given the sad state of your Libyan foreign policy, how are we going to influence the new government?” This statement is really just the reporter’s opinion disguised as a question. She is not listening.

Postponing the formation of an opinion breaks the scientific method. It takes a lot of conscious practice, especially for analytical people like me. When discussing issues, we want to understand the problem rapidly and jump to a solution. We don’t want to waste time with a lot of peripheral discussion, especially around feelings and emotion. One trick for postponement is to repeat the speaker’s statement pretty much verbatim. This trick has two benefits: First, it forces us to formulate the question exactly as asked, not paraphrased. Paraphrasing a question always filters or changes some of the original intent, usually through our world view. Secondly, it helps to postpone us from jumping to a conclusion or opinion.

After repeating the question, the next question should usually be about the implications of the last answer. “How did that affect you?”  “What do you think will come of it?” Many times it is very tempting to assume that we know the answers to those questions and jump to a conclusion or another topic.

Only after you feel that you profoundly understand the point and the point-of-view of the speaker should you weigh-in with your response. Even then, it is a good practice to begin with a statement something like: “I think I understand why you would see it that way, but from my point of view. . .”

Real listening is a skill that can be learned but, like any skill, it takes discipline and constant practice. Getting better at listening can benefit you in every aspect of your life – work, social and family. It can also greatly benefit your company to teach and practice listening skills with your employees and partners.