Want to Be a Better Communicator? Stop Talking

Want to Be a Better Communicator? Stop Talking

In the 1960s, there was a brilliant and cynical Harvard-educated mathematician named Tom Lehrer who became, for a few years, a very popular performer. He wrote and sang acerbic, hysterical songs about the issues of the day—among them “The Vatican Rag,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “New Math,” and “Pollution.” A few years into his performing career, when he felt he’d tackled every vulnerable current event, he gave up performing to go back to teaching math at UC Santa Cruz where he remained for decades.

One of Mr. Lehrer’s song rants was about interpersonal communication. Yes, it was as hot a topic then as it is now. In the spoken intro to the song he says, “One problem that recurs more and more frequently these days in books and plays and movies is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love—husbands and wives who can’t communicate, children who can’t communicate with their parents, and so on.”

Sound familiar?

Mr. Lehrer continues:  “The characters in these books and plays—and in real life I might add—spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can’t communicate. I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.”

For reasons Mr. Lehrer probably didn’t envision, shutting up is actually quite a good idea. We’re so accustomed to stating and restating our points, explaining things this way, then that way, that we forget to stop and give the other person time to take it in. We forget to check if they are taking it in. When they’re confused or they disagree, we go back to talking and explaining, stating and restating, not shutting up, being quiet, and listening.

Terrible Communicators Talk and Talk

Good communicators listen. Terrible communicators talk and talk.

Talkers who don’t listen pay little attention to whether the information they’re trying to convey is landing with their intended audience. Talkers who do listen ask questions—“Is this clear, or does it seem like I left something out?”—and they stop talking to give the other person time to answer and time for themselves to tune into the answer. They genuinely want to know whether they’ve been understood, whether the people they’re talking to have enough background or context to “get” it. Good listeners detect right away when there’s resistance to their message, and they’re able to ascertain if their audience disagrees with points they’re making, whether they’re confused, or whether they think they have a better idea. Maybe they do have a better idea, but a talker who keeps talking will never know.

Negotiating and Listening

The word “negotiation” may sound like something reserved for sales meetings, government standoffs, and job offers, but in fact negotiating is an everyday occurrence. Every time a project’s scope tries to creep or a budget is cut and something must be sacrificed or a cheaper technology seems like a better idea but isn’t, the way through the issue is by negotiating.

There are three reasons to listen well during any negotiation, according to William Ury, author of Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. They are:

  1. Listening helps us understand the other side. How can you change someone’s mind if you don’t know their mind?
  2. Listening builds rapport. Someone’s not likely to agree with us, nor can we change their mind to our way of thinking, if they feel disconnected.
  3. It’s more likely the other person will listen to us if we’re listening to them.

In fact, our own good listening can change the pace of a negotiation, de-escalating an argument just by inserting a moment or two of silent, patient tuning in. But instead, we have this sort of habitual urge to fill silence with sound, as if our mere noise were boosting productivity. It’s a habit that’s taking a toll on negotiating, comprehension, building rapport, all of it.

Listening Doesn’t Come Naturally

Listening is a skill, says sound and listening expert Julian Treasure in his book How to Be Heard. Hearing is a sense awareness which we come by naturally, and we hear things whether we want to or not. Listening, on the other hand, doesn’t come naturally. Good listeners listen because they mean to. The act of listening is intentional. Listeners set an intention to tune in and follow what someone else is saying.

Without the intention, we miss a lot. That probably explains why we spend about 60% of our lives (ostensibly) listening, yet retain only 25% of what we hear. Without the active intention to really follow and take in what’s being said, we don’t.

Outbound and Inbound

Communication comes in four forms: speaking and writing, reading and listening. Speaking and writing are the outbound forms—from us to others—while the other two are inbound, from others to us.

When job descriptions say, as most of them do, “Excellent communication skills required,” they’re not talking about inbound communication. They’re talking about writing and speaking. Those are believed to be the power positions of communicating. Job descriptions that call for “excellent listening skills” are rare.

“We prioritize sending over receiving, which is itself a dangerous mistake,” Mr. Treasure says in How to Be Heard. He says this, in part, because sound itself profoundly affects us—noise causes stress, for example—and in part because speaking and listening are circular activities, not linear. It isn’t “I speak, you listen” (linear), it’s “How you listen affects how I speak” (circular).

A speaker will speak faster, and perhaps even frantically, to someone who’s hardly listening, but deliberately and clearly to someone who’s fully listening. The listener may be sitting in silence, but he has a lot of power, guiding the speaker’s delivery simply by being attentive, not impatient, all the while taking in a lot, not just 25%.

We may think that speaking is the powerful thing to do, but Mr. Treasure says that’s wrong. Listening is power.

DIY Listening: One Easy Step

Not listening well isn’t a flawed character trait we can add to our list of things to feel badly about. Not at all! As I said before, listening is a skill, one that most of us never learn. But we certainly can.

Mr. Treasure and Mr. Ury both make the same recommendation: have the intention to listen. Mean to listen. Switch the object of your intention from your own immediate concerns to someone else’s. Not forever, just for a bit.

My son called while I was wrapping up the draft of this article. He wanted to tell me something that was important to him, something he’d figured out, which I found sort of vaguely interesting. So I put him on speaker and looked at my screen while he was talking, tinkering with punctuation changes, until I realized (with horror) what I was doing. I wasn’t listening to him. I didn’t have the intention to pay attention.

So I changed my intention, closed my laptop, and took him off speaker. And I found that what he’d called to tell me was far more profound than it first seemed.

Funny how that works.

I also told him early on “I have only about five minutes before I gotta go,” so he knew time was short. Listening doesn’t mean we passively wait for the other person to stop talking, we can set limits. But I gave him my attention for the full five minutes—listening, asking questions to test my understanding, and waiting through the occasional silence while he thought of the right word.

Listening with intention. It’s actually easy. Just notice that you don’t mean to listen and decide to mean to listen. Then you will.

Think of what becoming a good listener will do for you on so many fronts, not just your professional life but your personal life too—your role as a parent, a friend, an offspring, spouse, or sibling.

It’s never too late to become a better listener.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


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