When engaged in conversation, humans don’t listen to something; rather they listen for something. At the beach, we listen to the sounds of the ocean. At a concert, we listen to the music. Something changes when we listen to another person, especially when that person is responding to a question we’ve asked.
To say that we “listen for” something is to call attention to the fact that when we pose a question, we are meeting a need.
In conversation with someone, you are attentive in different ways based on the context of the interaction and the life experience responsible for the thoughts and feelings that accompany your listening. The police investigator listens differently to the question, “where were you last night?” than a concerned friend wanting to know why you didn’t come to her party. Imagine you have just returned from a tour of wineries in Bordeaux, France. You are standing with a group of people at a dinner party and you strike up a conversation with someone you have just met. You ask, “How do you know our host?” The person tells you that she met the host at a wine and cheese tasting event at the museum of modern art. Odds are that the reference to “wine and cheese” will be more salient than the reference to “modern art.”
The questions we choose to ask are windows into our thinking. What we listen for is influenced by the interplay of who we are and how we are thinking and feeling. The questions we choose to ask are in turn, influenced by what we listen for. Getting stuck often means that the information you get from the questions you ask does not alter anything about who you are and what you think and feel about the situation. If we are not changed by the information we are getting, we won’t change what we are listening for. If we don’t change what we are listening for, we won’t be able to think of better questions. I refer to this simplified version of confirmation bias as, “the inquiry loop.”
To illustrate how the Inquiry Loop influences the emergence of information and options, let’s deconstruct two possible versions of an interaction between a manager and a team member during a one-on-one performance discussion.
Manager’s Inquiry Loop
Manager’s Inquiry Loop
|Manager’s thoughts and feelings about the situation||This will be a short meeting; getting information from Barry is like pulling teeth. He gets his work done and doesn’t complain. No point in making this conversation awkward for either of us.||I feel like I count on Barry year after year, but I don’t really know much about him. He never speaks up in staff meetings and I sense that he finds these annual one-on-one’s uncomfortable. I’m going to challenge myself to break the pattern and see if we can’t build rapport.|
|What the manager is listening for||The information I need to complete the performance development form||Something I never knew before about Barry that might spark an idea for how to make work better for him and maybe even help him be better at what he does.|
(Asked by the manager)
|“I can’t believe it’s been another year. OK, Barry you know the drill. What are your three goals for the coming year?”||Barry, before we get to the form I wanted to ask you something. The other day I went by your desk and saw a picture of you and maybe some friends dressed in some elaborate costumes. Forgive me for being nosey, but I was wondering what was going on in that picture?|
(How the team member answers the question)
|Barry slips a piece of paper to his manager, “I answered all the template questions in writing to save us time.”||Barry blushes and looks away. After a moment he says, “It was a cosplay competition at an Anime convention. I actually won an award for that costume, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about the weird stuff I do on the weekends.”|
|Given, the team members’ response, the manager’s thoughts and feelings||
I knew he hated these conversations as much as I do. Maybe next year, we can get this done by e-mail.
I have no idea what he’s talking about, but obviously there is a passion for creative expression that we are not tapping into.
Of course, things get complicated when you consider that there is an inquiry loop at work influencing what the other person in a conversation is thinking, feeling and listening for. For our purposes, it is enough to develop our awareness of what influences our own questions and to develop our own ability to listen for a change when we feel stuck.
If you are a student or a practitioner of improvisational theater, you already know the emphasis improvisers place on the skill of listening. For the uninitiated, it may seem counter-intuitive that actors and comedians engaged in improvisations would prioritize listening over having something interesting to say. Keith Johnstone is a British theater director, author, playwright and teacher who pioneered a number of theater exercises and techniques. Johnstone’s philosophy of improvisation has a spiritual quality to it. For Johnstone, the great improvisers are channeling an emergent creation by being attentive, not by being prepared. In Johnstone’s view of the art form, improvisers don’t get stuck because they run out of things to say, they get stuck because they try to be clever and impose something on a scene and end up losing the thread of what is being created. Even when listening, we can impose ourselves. If I’m improvising onstage and eager to try out the Russian accent I’ve been practicing, I will listen for an opportunity to introduce a character from Russia. Johnstone beautifully described what great improvisers and great listeners are listening for. He wrote,
Instead of telling actors that they should be good listeners (which is confusing), we should say, ‘Be altered by what’s said’ (1999, page 59)
When we listen with an intention to be altered, the unstuck strategies disrupt the stabilizing effects of the inquiry loop by allowing a better question to prompt new information that in turn alters our thoughts, our feelings, and ultimately what we are listening for.