Getting the Picture

By Ken Michaels, Guest Writer
Bicycle illustration

By Ken Michaels, Guest Writer

Recently, I attended the annual meeting of the BioCommunications Association in Asilomar, Calif. Not surprisingly, the speakers, all professional communicators, were very good and spoke knowledgeably on their various topics.

But something else impressed me during the informal times between presentations, and at mealtimes. These folks not only tended to speak well, but they also tended to listen well.

And there’s a very strong case to be made for the importance of listening in effective communication.

Ken Blanchard, co-author of the bestseller The One Minute Manager (William Morrow, 2003) and other works, tells the story of an exchange between a mother and young son overheard at a shopping mall. As they pass a store window, the child remarks, “Boy, would I like to have that bicycle!” As it happens, Mom had bought the youngster a new bicycle for Christmas only months before and instantly went into a towering rage about how greedy and selfish he was, and how he didn’t appreciate everything she did for him. Severely chastened, the child went silent and trailed along with his hand in hers, quietly crying.

While this may sound like an anecdote leading up to a lesson on parenting, Blanchard sees it as an example of failed listening. His take is that the kid wasn’t stupid. He knew he’d just gotten a new bicycle recently and wasn’t expressing his desire for another; that wasn’t what he was talking about. According to Blanchard, the child was saying something else, but Mom didn’t hear it, and thus the opportunity for the two to communicate was completely lost.

So what happened?

To begin with, Mom was not in listen-to-my-son mode; rather, she was in see-things-from-my-own-viewpoint mode. Blanchard suggests that if she had been in listen-to-my-son mode, she might instead have reacted to his remark by pausing and asking him, “What is it about this bicycle that you like so much, honey?”

Maybe his answer would have been, “I really like those cool streamers coming from the handle grips,” or perhaps, “This one has a real neat shiny bell on the handlebars.” And the conversation that may have followed could have turned out to be a real bonus for Mom when it came time to pick out his next birthday present. But instead, no meaningful communication took place.

In Mom’s defense, it’s easy to say that she should have been better tuned in to her son, but it’s a lot easier to say it than to actually do it. For most people, the default mode is to see, and hear, things through our own personal filters, rather than find our way into the head of the person we’re interacting with and see—really see—what they’re telling us.

Listening to Understand

The reality is that the example of the little boy and his mother is by no means the only time one person said something and another missed the message completely. Unfortunately, it happens a lot. For most people, really listening to others is something they have to make a conscious effort to do.

You’ve probably heard, at one time or another, about the techniques of “active listening”; these are the things we concentrate on doing when a conversation is important to us. They include:

  • giving the person speaking your undivided attention;  
  • showing that you’re listening (with eye contact, body language);
  • providing occasional feedback (by paraphrasing, or asking questions);
  • reserving judgment until you’ve heard everything; and
  • responding appropriately.

Active listening is taken a step further by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy (Business Plus, 2012), in which he uses the term “aggressive listening” to describe his approach to effectively commanding a U.S. Navy missile destroyer. 

Tom Peters, well-known co-author of In Search of Excellence (Harper and Row, 1982), advocates “strategic listening”; he asserts that effective leaders must make it a goal to become “professional listeners” and that study and practice are needed to make that happen.

He goes on to suggest that in business, good listening should be considered a core competency and is the bedrock underpinning a commitment to excellence. He also tells us that an obsession with listening is the ultimate demonstration of respect. And who doesn’t want to be treated with respect? 

Listening is more than simply hearing; it’s about actually understanding what’s being said. As one cynic in the early days of television put it, “Are you getting the picture yet, or are you still just stuck with the sound?”

Really good listening is about getting the picture.

© 2013 Ken Michaels. All rights reserved.

Additional Reading:

  1. James Manktelow and Amy Carlson, “Active Listening.”
  2. Tom Peters, “Strategic Listening.”
  3. “Tom Peters’ Leadership Thoughts: Listening.”

Ken Michaels, retired manager of Visual Communications, Leidos Biomedical Research, is a special volunteer for NCI at Frederick.