A simple model of listening

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

-George Box

This statement, which originated in the field of statistics, came to mind when I read a recent business article, “There Are Actually Three Kinds of Listening.” According to the article, the three kinds of listening are:




Basically this brief article—labeled a 5-minute read—says good listeners use appropriate body language, stay attentive, and empathize.

This framework for listening is memorable, but may be oversimplistic. I cringed when I read this advice for being a strong “mental” listener:

If the person uses lots of “um’s” and “ah’s,” or hedging phrases like “sort of” and “maybe,” it’s a good bet that their ideas aren’t fully baked, or that they’re less committed to them.

After a middle-school teacher expressed this same opinion of “um” to her child, law professor Barbara Gotthelf did some academic research on linguists’ approach to “um.” She found a very different view, prompting her to publish The Lawyer’s Guide to Um:

[U]sing uh and um was not only “perfectly normal,” but also helpful in furthering effective communication.

In fact, she found,”the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.” I recommend Gotthelf’s article for anyone who has been harshly critiqued for using “uh” or “um”, and for anyone tempted to offer such critique to others.

This is but one critique of the basis for the “physical, mental, and emotional” formula. But using these three concepts as a checklist before a people-intensive meeting could help quite a bit. Statistician George Box also wrote, “overelaboration and overparameterization [are] often the mark of mediocrity.” For listeners interested in enhancing their actual listening behavior (as opposed to studying it later), an “overelaborated” or “overparameterized” model of listening would be useless or worse.

And this simple three-part model seems like it could actually be useful.





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