Everybody’s Talking at Me

Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song has been stuck in my head all day. I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner Severino Surace owned the place. Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D’, walked into the bar and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do; I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons. In my defense he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my colleagues, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” When we have a responsibility, work to do and we need the cooperation of others to get it done, influence generally looks like “talking at.” The police officer says, “move along.” The clerk says, “next!” Even a request for information can feel like you’re being talked at, like when a bureaucratic agent at a call center asks with a blend of tyranny and boredom, “name and account number?”

The meeting rooms of our organizations have become arenas for talking at. Meeting participants take turns expressing important ideas in a bulleted list hoping to influence, inspire and/or inform. Recall something you heard that you found influential, informative or inspiring. My guess is that you are recalling a narrative or image not a list. We are wired to take in narrative. Narrative involves us, whereas a list on a slide highlights the separation between the presenter and those being presented to. In a recent letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reiterated his prohibition against presenting ideas in the form of bullet points. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon.”

If you’re not ready to ban PowerPoint at your meetings, you could make one small change that will switch the level of involvement you get when you present.

Next time you have to make a presentation to people whose cooperation or approval you need, consider starting with the question, “What will you be listening for?”

Depending on the number of people in the meeting, you can hear each person’s answer or have them talk it over in small groups and then request a few responses. Giving people the opportunity to tell you what they need to hear not only helps you shape your presentation, it also creates an atmosphere of shared responsibility in the room.

What are you Listening for?

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

Version One

Manager’s Inquiry Loop

Version Two

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.
Question

(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?
Information

(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.

Johnstone, K (1999). Impro for Storytellers. New York, NY: Routledge