On Listening (Part 11)

"A 2015 study showed that while 78% of accredited undergraduate business schools list “presenting” as a learning goal, only 11% identified 'listening.'" (Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg)


Just that day, I had attended a parent meeting to prepare for our son's class field trip to Washington D.C. We had discussed everything from extra socks to petty cash.

At dinner, our son and I bantered at a clip about the details.

We shared context and information.

My husband, who was not at the meeting, did not.

"I'm going to take one fifty," our son said.

"Why would you take one fifty?" my husband replied. "One fifty is a strange bill to have on hand."


"Yes, no one really knows what to do with a fifty. You're going to want to take a couple of twenties and a ten. But, don't you think you'll need more?"

Our son and I stared at him.

There was a long pause.

He looked back and forth at us trying to discern why we weren't getting his point.

"No, Dad. ONE FIFTY. One hundred and fifty dollars, not one $50 bill."

We all started laughing.

With a shortcut that our son and I had context for, "one fifty" was $150.

However, because he didn't have the same foundational knowledge, "one fifty" was $50 (as a single bill).


This is how arguments start, decisions get botched, and small things turn into large misunderstandings.

The crime here wasn't in poor listening, but in poor wording.

And, one simple step could have set things straight much faster.

A simple reflection.

At the moment of his first confusion, my husband could have reflected back, "Just to make sure I understand what you're saying, when you say "one fifty" does that mean you plan to take one fifty dollar bill?"

How often do we hear a colleague and think, "What they are saying makes no sense."

Instead of judging the idea or dismissing it, pause long enough to reflect what we're hearing and check that we have all the context we need in order to layer our thoughts on top of it.

This practice is reflection.

Just like a mirror, reflection shares back what we've taken in. It checks for understanding. While you may have heard that the best reflections share your understanding (rather than their exact words), data now points to the fact that you can repeat exact words and achieve the same results.

This observation was made in a study of negotiators. The structure of the experiment positioned one group to reflect back the exact words (imitate) of the other negotiation party, one group rephrased what the other party said, one group focused on behaviors of active listening, and one group could make choices based on a 'free technique'. The findings of these different behaviors in a negotiation was that no significant efficiency differences emerged between active listening behaviors and imitation.

Thus, you can reflect using the exact words of the person you're interacting with and it's equally efficient as putting in the extra nuances of "active listening". When in doubt, repeat.

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