How Do I Listen?


I am a professional listener. I get paid to listen and respond to what groups and individuals say. The ability to listen in a way that is valuable for people is not that I reflect back everything l have heard, like a human audio recorder. What they pay me for is how I respond to what is said and what I reflect back. A question I often get, usually in corporate environments, is, “How did you know what to capture? Did you study our business processes? You got all the important stuff. How did you know how to do that?”

My candid short answer: I try not to pay too much attention.

Seems flip, and I usually don’t say this, but it is in fact, the very truth. What does that mean? Well, unlike a machine that will record every word that is said, no human is likely able to capture and keep up with that, unless you are a court reporter. Capturing everything is not necessarily valuable to a group. When your friend tells you about a conversation they had last week, they tell you the highlights, the interesting points, the sense of the conversation. They do not proceed to iterate everything that was said, in the way it was said. That would be tedious, and probably not give you the sense of what happened in the way that your friend wants you to know.

So when people are talking about business processes, steeped in their own esoteric language and ideas, how do I listen in order to capture what is most meaningful? I describe it this way: I listen to the sound of the conversation and also the words themselves. The sound of a conversation is like music. The cadence indicates to me what is most important to the person speaking at that moment. It helps me sort from the onslaught of content. I listen for what rises to the top and wants to be on the map.

Another way to describe how I listen comes to me from a painting teacher I had in college. In our instruction about composition, he suggested we look at paintings from a distance and with squinted eyes. This would allow us to see the composition of the image from a meta-view, without the distraction of the detail. This is exactly what is valuable as a professional listener. You want to hear the shape of the conversation, with access to the detail, but to first hear the meta-view. This guides the organization, the relationship between the line and shape in the dialogue that contributes to the overall composition of the conversation. So I listen by squinting my ears, which enables me to not get lost in the details of everything, and to hear the larger shape of what is being said.

Not all visual practitioners listen in this way, or describe how they listen in this way. How do you listen?