“It it looks like listening, if it acts like listening, if it sounds like listening, why then, it must be listening.” That ain't necessarily so.
Pretending to Listen
A listener can be looking at the speaker, nodding from time to time, and uttering well-timed “uh-huhs” during the talk, all this – but no real listening is happening. That is, no real taking in and considering what was said. Instead, the words are being gracefully deflected, just like a Teflon surface, by an adept management of appearances.
In my conversation seminars, I often give participants the following exercise: I ask person “A” in each trio to step outside the room and recall a thrilling travel experience so that they can present it in a lively way to the other two persons in their trio. When “A's” are gone, I instruct persons “B” to appear to be very involved – leaning forward, being attentive, nodding, etc. I tell them that while they are doing this, think of something else, perhaps a grocery list or a planned activity. I then instruct “C's” to listen intently so that they could summarize what was said, but not to engage in the usual “listening behaviors.” Instead, look away and be silent.
Then the “A's” return and tell their travel stories to “B” and “C”. After they have finished their brief stories, I ask them to identify who was the better listener. Invariably, they choose the “B's”, the ones that only appeared to be listening. (I then ask “B's” to recall details of what was said, but usually they are unable to do so.) When we ask the “C's” – the one who appeared NOT to be listening – to recall the details, they can usually do this with ease.
What is going on here? Well, simply put: It is possible to adopt a set of observable behaviors that are polite and discreet but do not include the principal element of effective listening -- the clear intention to understand what the speaker meant.
Why Listeners May Not Pay Attention
Sometimes this deflective “Teflon” listening may be caused by a speaker who presents in a way so dull, so flat, and so routine that listeners pay little heed. The speaker has already signaled that “what I say is not valuable or important.” In marketing terms, the speaker's message lacks “stickiness.”
More usual, I think, is the “pretend” listener who is not much interested in the ideas of others. Instead, this self-absorbed person is preparing remarks, or judging and invalidating what was said, or even “shuttling” elsewhere, pre-occupied and thinking about other matters. “Getting through” to such persons is difficult. They are so full of their own ideas, judgements, and pre-occupations, their minds have no room for the thoughts of others.
Day-dreaming and sleepy students are examples of Teflon listening. Perhaps they are overloaded with too much information from a series of complex lectures. Or they are sleep-deprived and weary. (A professor friend who had taught at a Chinese university told me that his students in the back rows could actually sleep with their eyes open so looked attentive!)
A minister I know has a very engaging manner, but he seems to absorb little of – or consider seriously – what is said to him. Loquacious and excited to share his own ideas, he tends to deflect the thoughts of most others while preparing to inject his own remarks. I think he is unaware that others notice this. But they do.
How to Improve Another's Listening
One way to influence the Teflon listeners to pay attention is to ask “What do you understand me to be saying?” when you have finished talking. You can do this very tactfully and in a pleasant tone. Often these non-listeners will be alerted that they'll be found to be dissembling if they don't pay attention. Knowing they might be questioned on what was said often encourages others to listen more carefully.