Is Anyone Listening?

Posted on 5th Jun 2019

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have rather talked.” Mark Twain

My brother and I went fishing the other morning and met a guy at the boat ramp who wasn’t familiar with the waters. With a friendly smile, he asked if we could tell him how to fish that section of the Potomac. Within minutes, we knew where he worked, when he planned to retire, his expected retirement income, how much he spent on his boat, all the rivers he’d fished up and down the East Coast, the largest fish he’d ever caught, his medical ailments, his father’s medical ailments, and how wealthy his own brother had become from starting a business that was now the fifth largest in its industry. What did he know about fishing that section of the river? Not much.  

Over time, I’ve grown fascinated by the listening habits of people. Most people listen reasonably well and it’s a pleasure conversing with them in an easy back-and-forth dialog. But some people – like this morning’s fisherman – just aren’t very interested in listening. All of us fall into that category from time to time because we’re enthusiastic about a topic or tapped out and have no energy left to listen. Some people, however, just tend not to listen to others. I’ve informally grouped non-listeners into three categories:

  1. “I’m Just Not Interested” – These people are fully capable of engaging in a dialog as long as it pertains to themselves or their areas of interest. Otherwise, they clam up – sometimes quite abruptly. Of course, they’re easy to re-engage. Just lead the conversation back to them or their interests and you’re golden.
  2. “You Don’t Matter” – I first noticed this style sitting next to a politician at a large dinner event. He didn’t know me and I had no power or money to further his ambitions, so he spent the evening looking over or past me to connect with better-connected people. A politician working the room may be an extreme example of the “You Don’t Matter” style, but you’ll find people behaving in a dismissive manner at many work and social gatherings. It usually does no good to try to engage them – unless for some reason you want to matter to them. Then you’ll need to have something they want. Good luck.
  3. “The Friendly Pivot” – The fisherman I met recently typifies this style. “Friendly Pivoters” engage others by asking an opening question that’s focused on the other person or on a topic of mutual interest, only to pivot and talk about themselves for the rest of the conversation.

Interestingly, non-listeners in all categories seem to have little insight about their tendency not to listen. So here’s the thing: Do you fall into one of these categories, even some of the time? Think about it. If you’re not sure, try this little experiment: Pick a person, any person, and engage in a conversation with him or her for a full 3 minutes without turning the topic to yourself or your interests. Focus solely on the other person and his/her interests. Ask several follow-up questions. Without letting on, time the conversation – just 3 minutes.

No matter how your experiment turns out, it helps to practice the 50% Rule: When talking with another person, spend no more than half the time focused on yourself, your interests, or your opinions. Spend the other half talking about the other person and his/her interests and views, or a topic of mutual interest. If you’re in a group conversation, make it a 30% Rule. You may find that listening comes easy, or not. Either way, by practicing the 50% (or 30%) Rule you’ll delight people around you by giving them the opportunity to express themselves. You'll also be better liked, build better relationships, and be better informed. That's a great return on a small investment in listening. And, if you happen to go fishing, you might just catch more fish . . .


Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019