Listening from ignorance to mastery

The Farnam Street blog has this, this morning on becoming a lifelong learner:

When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery.

The quote is from Laurence Enderson, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All the Difference, a collection of wisdom inspired by Charlie Munger, lawyer and vice chair of Berkshire Hathaway. I haven’t read the book, but Farnam Street extensively quotes its exhortations to move beyond “coasting,” and rather to embrace lifelong learning. The passage on this continuum of learning was of particular interest.

What would this continuum look like as applied to listening?

Ignorance

It seems like many are operating in a state of ignorance about listening as a concept and an improvable skill. Yet they may be decent or even very strong listeners. In the same way, a talented self-taught writer may not use the vocabulary learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but still produce great prose. On the other hand, many others are ignorant of listening and/or ignorant about how bad they are at listening. (This is the Dunning-Kruger effect, a delusion of competence that applies to listening as to any other skill and has been discussed on the blog here and here and here.)

Conversational Competence

For the rest of us—the coachable who haven’t yet been coached—a state of ignorance about listening seems inexcusable, although common. I say it’s inexcusable in part because “conversational competence” can be reached without a lot of effort. A bit of time spent learning active listening could be sufficient.

Operational Competence

The operational competence is harder. Actually practicing active listening is much more of a challenge than talking about it. And what if active listening isn’t even the right strategy?

Professor Neil Hamilton, in a formative law review article on listening, talked about passive listening as well. (Here’s the link: “Effective Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills.”) Passive listening has three components, according to Hamilton (citations omitted):

First, the attorney should place an emphasis on silence in conversations. “[A] brief but definite pause in a conversation” can be an effective tool, allowing the client to collect his or her thoughts and then provide information in a more comfortable fashion.The failure to allow periodic silence can interrupt a client‟s stream of association and make the client feel cut off, hurried, or pressured. Effective lawyers will often pause and allow the client to reflect before continuing with their dialogue.

The second key to passive listening is the use of “minimal prompts.” While silence can make some clients and lawyers uncomfortable, “minimal prompts” can let the client know that the lawyer is listening and understands what is being said.

The final passive-listening technique is the use of open-ended questions.

Of these three techniques, the first—using silence—seems by far the hardest. The role of silence is a challenge for many, perhaps especially for lawyers. Legal Zoom CEO John Suh recently offered the following statistic:

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Before one becomes operationally competent in tolerating and even encouraging real silence, one must first be operationally competent in remaining silent while someone—such as a client—is talking.

Proficiency and Mastery

What makes a listener not only competent, but even proficient and, eventually, masterful? Malcolm Gladwell profiled “gifted listener” Konrad Kellen, the Vietnam consultant who was able to listen to interviews with the North Vietnamese without bias. This meant he did not allow the prevailing theory of the war to shape his perception of what they meant.

Listening without bias is closely connected to hearing what isn’t being said:

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

-Peter Drucker

In other words, great listeners overcome the “availability bias” of paying attention to what is on the list or what the witness is saying, instead of what is not.

So proficient listening is in part a set of technical skills such as appropriate body language, recall, notetaking, compensating for cognitive biases such as the availability bias. Professor Neil Hamilton’s article provides a variety of self-assessments and exercises. Taken together, the questions on the self-assessment provide a sort of schematic of a masterful listener. Here’s an excerpt:

  • I use head nods and facial expressions to indicate that I am listening to a speaker.
  • I establish and maintain eye contact with a speaker.
  • I maintain strong posture and avoid slouching during conversations.
  • I notice changes in a speaker’s volume or tone of voice or nonverbal expressions.

But masterful listening can be—and at least sometimes should be—more than a set of techniques. Hamilton ultimately approaches listening as a virtue. He writes that “listening requires the ability to empathize and relate authentically to a speaker, in addition to technical skills.”

One difficulty lawyers face with the “virtuous listener” theory is what to do with those who act and speak in bad faith. Even with their own clients, lawyers may need to “trust, but verify.” 

If the true sign of genius is being able to hold two opposing truths in mind at the same time and still function (paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald), then the lawyer-as-listener who reaches mastery is indeed a sort of genius. The lawyer uses all the technical tools of listening. More broadly, the lawyer achieves the virtues of empathy and connectedness—but only when appropriate. Sometimes, as communication consultant Jennie Grau pointed out in her recent interview here, the lawyer-as-listener just has to “listen to respond” (not to understand). The mastery lies in knowing the difference.

I was going to end on that note, but that’s not quite enough. Sometimes a situation that begins with hostility and distrust can be transformed into a real opportunity to resolve a dispute, such as in mediation. Listening has a key role to play here. It’s certainly not easy, and listening may seem at times like a zero-sum game with many players. For example, what if the client (who may not be an advanced listener) perceives the lawyer has somehow empathized too much with the mediator or “the enemy”? The difficulty of these situations is exactly why there’s a difference between the lawyer with competence and the one with mastery. When the conditions are right, the masterful listener can use the tools and virtues of listening not just to encounter and understand a situation, but to change it.

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