Are You Really Listening?

Many times I have posed this question to a student gazing out the window or at a wall in my classroom way back during my teaching career. I was sure that they were not! Later, when I helped the high school where I was teaching to implement a study skills program, I learned that these students might actually be listening to me, and that the manner in which they received information influenced them to look away when they listened. Now in the business world, when I am (often) tempted to ask the same question during a meeting or presentation, I remember what I learned back then.

There are a number of factors that influence how people acquire knowledge; the most obvious being a preference for visual or audio. I am without doubt a visual person and there are two long-time habits that I have that reveal this: the first is that when I drive, I often listen to the radio. If I am driving in familiar territory or on the highway for long miles, the radio is on. But if I am trying to get to a place where I have not been before, I always instinctively turn off the radio. It turns out that I do that because I prefer visual, and the audio signals make it hard for me to concentrate.

The second story is my presentation style. I thought it was just a holdover from my teaching days, but I can rarely make a presentation of any sort with out getting up to a whiteboard or a flipchart to start drawing pictures and diagrams. Again, since my preferred style is visual, I much prefer to present visually as well as verbally. Ever meet someone that can’t talk while sitting on their hands?

There are some interesting and important conclusions to be taken from this: first of all, if you have an audience of even 2 or 3 people in front of you, it is entirely possible that you will find at least one person whose style is different from yours. So, if you are visual, like me, and you are talking to an audio person, you must take care; the audio person would prefer to listen rather than look.

How will you know? It is very possible that you will want to ask that person “Are your really listening?”, because they will not be looking at your drawings. They may also be asking questions with words that are pointed to audio, “Could you explain?”, “Could you say?” as opposed to visual, “Could you illustrate?”

You can maximize your meetings and presentations by preparing yourself for both styles. As a visual person, I often prepare graphs, drawings and other materials as part of my presentation. However, in order to accommodate people who prefer audio, I must also prepare my words well; I need to be clear and concise with my message.

I noticed a few years ago that at times, people that I gave direction to verbally at times struggle to understand what I wanted them to do. I realized that I had to be more precise in how I described things when I was talking in order for them to get it the first time around. This would be a case where a thousand words (well chosen) are better than a picture!

6 thoughts on “Are You Really Listening?

  1. Seems like a lot of words to say ‘know your audience’

    • Kevin R Callahan

      You are very right, always know your audience! But I am talking about things that are universal. You should always know your audience in terms of your subject matter, but here I am talking about universal characteristics regardless of your subject matter. These apply both when speaking to a large group, but also when working with someone one-on-one. As a matter of fact, it is often more useful one person or a small group where you can gauge people’s reaction.

  2. Though John makes an interesting observation, what I saw was “don’t assume everyone is like you.” But it goes beyond just that simple statement, because attached to this assumption is a judgement, and usually a negative one. Too often people presume others think and behave like themselves, and when this expectation isn’t met, they form negative opinions of the “offender”. Often there may not be a chance for those involved to discuss and clarify the situation and that negative view will remain.

  3. Jim Christensen

    You are on target. Thanks for the reminder. Years a go, I had a manager that first made me aware that different people process information in different ways, .i.e. visual, audio, tangible, abstract, examples, analogies, etc. One must be prepared to appeal to all of them to get your message across. It is always good to get refreshers on things that we have either forgotten or take for granted. THANK YOU!

  4. What I learned long ago about my myself, is that I’m an auditory. I have no need (but I do) to make eye contact with the person speaking, because I not only hear, but also absorb what is being said.

    I look at them, because I understand that to most folks, and visuals in particular, perceive that because you are not looking at them, you are not paying attention.

    Also folks who are auditory, don’t “read between the lines.” Each word used has a specific, and not implied meaning. That creates much difficulty for folks like us, because many folks use words that don’t apply to the situation, and we are always asking for clarification of what was just said. At least that’s what I do.

    Trust me, it’s not easy being an auditory.


  5. Are you listening. In the late 80’s I worked for a CIO who had a different listening mode than mine. We were frequently at odds, demonstrated by his impatience when I responded “I see” when he needed “I hear you” to feel comfortable that we were on the same page

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