Are you better at talking than listening?


I stumbled across an interesting presentation over the past week, which I thought I’d share and also offer my own thoughts to broaden the theme and put it into context. It’s also another possible case of teaching an old dog (me) new tricks, though the jury is out on this one for now. It’s probably a new trick I do need to learn however. Let me explain.

I recently outlined the fact that I’m going to Rwanda in the near future on a volunteering program, the core deliverable being the transfer of mine and my colleagues’ skills to assist in an emerging market. That’s the theory at any rate. I of course am racked with self-doubt (as in ‘what do I know?’) and am currently reaching out in every direction for material to help me conquer these lingering doubts. I do hope to utilise self-discovery techniques I used in a previous Irish volunteering program, working with small businesses to help them survive, and to become bigger businesses. But will these hard-learned methods be enough to afford me credibility when I am faced with a specific ‘problem to fix’? I truly don’t know, though obviously I’ll give it my best shot.

So bearing these misgivings in mind, I was delighted as part of the required preparation for this venture to become acquainted with a technique called ‘Appreciative Inquiry’. For the uninitiated (and me, evidently) this was developed by ‘Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management’. Quite a mouthful. But getting past my suspicions I discovered that this was a technique specifically designed to help in Developing World Economies to focus upon what assets are present. It’s also meant to maximize utilization of those assets, rather than thinking about what is unavailable – and possibly can never be available given the prevailing economic realities. This seems to my mind a really logical way to go about figuring out what’s realistic, achievable and practical. The starting point is the interview with ‘the client’ – and for me this is where it all gets really interesting.

Appreciative Inquiry is, as far as I can tell, primarily based on active listening. Which, sadly, is an art that most of us – me included – have long since forgotten. If we’re honest, when we’re ‘listening’ to someone else, more often than not we’re thinking of what we’re going to say next. I don’t think it’s deliberate as such, more a time saving habit that we’ve slipped into in this hyperactive world we inhabit. As in ‘I can save 20 seconds by formulating the incredibly witty/informed/insightful comeback WHILE he’s talking crap’.

I also have to avoid the trap of paraphrasing in a patronising way. I really (really) hate this when it’s done to me, so I’d like to think that I stifle the urge to use phrases like ‘What you’re trying to say is…’ When that’s said to me, I start to come out in a rage induced rash. This can also be triggered by the immortal phrase concerning ‘picking low hanging fruit’ – my most detested phrase of all time. Finally, another angle on non-listening is sympathetic one-upmanship. As in – ‘Wow, you were delayed for 4 hours at the airport – but (trump card) let ME tell YOU about the time I was snowed in at JFK for a whole 8 days’ – type of thing. I guess I’m as guilty of this as the next man. A competitive conversationalist. But in fairness I know I do it, and now – finally – I have a plan of sorts.

Admittedly the plan is probably simpler to set out than to implement, but my intentions are pure, honest and good. I plan to ask open ended questions, actually (yes!) listen to the answers, try to paraphrase in a non-patronising but clarifying way, and continually try to identify the positives in the situation. What are the assets, what are the prospects, what is achievable in a reasonably short timeline and what is sustainable? And listen to the answers that emerge. It’s quite evident that in any dealings I may have, building trust and credibility is an absolute necessity, and the timescale is finite. So in the limited time I have before this adventure begins, I plan to read up some more about Appreciative Inquiry, create a small bullet-point aide memoire for myself to carry along, and really try to hit the ground running.

‘Listen without Prejudice’, as that well known philosopher George Michael once said. And stay away from the low hanging fruit, however juicy they may appear. I said that. More anon, once I have put my pure principles into practice.


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