Apple Award Winning Podcast
Graham Bodie is a listening educator and consultant. He teaches on the topic of listening at university, conducts research and writes publications. Graham is also a coach and consultant in listening to the business world. He co-authored ‘The Sourcebook of Listening Research’.
Graham’s credits his father for some of his listening skills. In conversations, he might not say a lot, but in his silent listening drank everything in and then said something insightful.
He points out that we interrupt more than we think we do. It’s understandable, as we want to get what we have to say heard. It means, however, that we end up listening to respond rather than to understand.
We should be aiming to listen 80% of the time whilst speaking only 20%.
We need to practice not interrupting, as well as practicing listening. Allay the fear in your mind that someone is going to speak all day and waste your time – they won’t!
Tune in to Learn
- The six questions you need to ask and answer before you interrupt someone
- How you think about your listening is like you think about your driving
- Listening for ‘relational meaning’ and the intent of the speaker
- Admit and acknowledge how you feel and move on to what you should be doing
- Behavioural and verbal cues to help a speaker feel listened to
- Why we need to change our attitude toward silence
- The value of asking prompting question such as ‘What else?’
Episode 33: Deep Listening with Graham Bodie
In the research that we’ve done, we have found that verbal actions, primarily, are more important to people’s perceptions of others as good listeners than are the nonverbal components. Not that the nonverbal components are unimportant. It’s just that we attribute competency in listening or goodness in listening primarily as a function of those verbal components.
The interesting thing about speakers is they don’t speak for very long unless a listener indicates interest, attention, and permission to continue.
Speakers, when they’re talking, they do this. When speakers are speaking, they don’t hold eye contact with listeners 100% of the time, but the listeners tend to look at speakers more often when they’re listening.
Before we begin this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, do you know that you can subscribe to the podcast series using Apple Podcast? What does it mean when you subscribe? It means as soon as a new episode is released, it’s available immediately on your favourite device. I’m also excited to announce you can listen to Deep Listening, the podcast series via Spotify. If you search for Deep Listening or Oscar Trimboli in Spotify, you can listen to the podcast series there. If you live in the United States, I’m also excited to announce that if you use Amazon Alexa, you can now listen to the Deep Listening podcast series via Alexa. Simply say, “Alexa, enable Deep Listening Podcast.” If you’re in the US, you can listen to the podcast series there. As soon as it’s available in other markets, I’ll let you know.
In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we’ll hear from Graham, a listening educator from the United States where he teaches on the topic of listening at university, and through his consulting work, to corporations. He’s co-authored the book on listening research, The Sourcebook of Listening Research, which outlines the major pieces of research around listening around the world. It’s over 600 pages, nearly two and a half pounds or 1.2 kilos, depending which measure you use in the world.
Graham is a scholar, a teacher, a listener. Graham provides really practical ways of getting around the challenges of listening at home and at work and beyond. Listen carefully as Graham explains the importance of verbal feedback during listening, and how this is perceived differently from nonverbal cues such as eye contact, head movement, and body leaning. Graham outlines six great questions you need to ask yourself prior to interrupting. Let’s listen to Graham.
It’s interesting, my dad got a reputation around my friends for being the wise sage, the one that sat back and listened deeply and only contributed when he had something to say. He was a hunter, a deer hunter in particular. He had this one story that he called, the big buck saying is what he would say. I forget where that really came from, but it epitomised this notion that my friends attached to him as someone who didn’t say a lot, but when he did say something, you realise that he really was there taking everything in and listening intently to what everybody was saying.
I never really knew what my dad did other than he’s a physician and his specialty. I knew where he worked. I knew that nurses and everyone thought he was good to work for. I never really understood his influence, particularly, with residents until I went to an award ceremony one year, and I believe it was my youngest sister’s graduation. In that ceremony, he got an award. The person who came on stage to talk about his influence, they didn’t say the words, but they really talked about how he was a good listener, and he would take the issues and the complaints and the opinions and the perspectives of the residents to heart.
I think he emulated that in the house, when he was around and when he was contributing as a parent. I never felt like he wasn’t listening to my perspective. I could share things with him. I’m not sure, directly … I didn’t say, “I want to be a listening professor because my dad was a good listener,” but I think in hindsight, it makes sense that some of the things I do, I see, some of the things that I would say are traits of good listeners, or perhaps emulated in the way he behaves, particularly at work with his constituents.
Who were some of the other role models for listening along your journey?
Two in particular, one, I like to say that when I was in high school, I worked for a linguist. Really, he was a mechanic. His name was Glenn and he was the manager of a service station where I worked. He taught me the power and importance of language choices. I’ll give you an example. Someone would come into the gas station. Of course, everyone knows that in the United States that gas station attendants are the ones you ask directions from for whatever reason, and so people would come in the station. They would as directions to the interstate. Someone would say, “How do you get to I-65?” We would say, “Well, you go up this road here, and you pass three red lights, and then you take a left,” and you finish the directions and the person would leave.
Glenn would turn and say, “What if the light was green?” This notion of the importance of choosing your language wisely. It’s not a red light. It’s a traffic light, a silly example, but he really stressed the importance of choosing your words and paying attention to exactly how people stressed information and what words they’re saying, but more importantly, what they weren’t saying, and what they were leaving out in the conversation. Again, I don’t think I went into the field I went into because of Glenn, necessarily, but after I got into the field, I reflect back on that influence and the examples of everyday people that weren’t academics being able to model close attention to detail on people’s language.
For a direct influence, I was in my first semester of my master’s programme at Auburn University. The only reason I went is because I wanted to spend another semester at school. I didn’t really know what I wanted when I got out, so I figured the easiest thing was just to go back to school. I was good at it. Margaret was heavily involved in an organisation called the International Listening Association. One day, she came in and said, “I have a research project, and I want some help on it.” I said, “Well, that sounds fun.” I jumped in, and it happened to be a project that was looking at new ways to teach people to listen.
She and I teamed up with a guy by the name of Will Powers out of Texas Christian University, and he had a little business that he called Concept Keys. We ran with that project to see if he could teach people strategies of listening on a daily basis by giving them little, small chunks of information that build up into large stores of knowledge over time. Directly, I would say the person that influenced me most obviously in terms of giving me a direction in terms of my academic focus and later in life what I’d do in terms of my consulting, so Margaret and her bringing me into the fold in terms of allowing me to work on some research with her.
What do you think consistently makes the biggest difference from people being unaware that they’re not listening to taking them just a step forward, but quite a large step forward? What tip would you give the audience that’s the most important to improve their listening?
I heard two questions in that question that you just asked, one was how do you get people to notice or how do you get people motivated to start improving, and then the second question embedded in there is what’s the single best tip that I could give someone to be a better listener. I’m not sure the answer to either of those questions is the same, which is you got to point out to someone that they’re doing something they otherwise don’t recognise that they’re doing. I’m not going to say everybody, but a lot of individuals that I ask. I ask my students a lot. Raise your hand if you think you’re an above average driver. Of course, 80% of the students raise their hand. You look around and you say, “That’s impossible.” Statistically speaking, 80% of people can’t be above average.
I think the same thing goes for socially positive things like listening. We know from research, for instance, when you ask people about their traits as a listener, they tend to overemphasise the positive and underplay the negative, particularly when questions are asked in a way that accentuate what is beautifully positive, at least, from my aggregate level. People think they are good. People think, “I have thought about this, or even if I haven’t thought about it, I must be a good listener because no one has told me I’m not.” Those are various reasons why people may not tell you that you have certain tendencies that aren’t positive.
I think the first thing is to … I’ll, at times, will do some activities, or play games, or do some role-play with the individual to show them, for instance, that they interrupt a whole lot more they think they do. I think that’s one of the bigger ones is the interruption, the tendency to want to get your word in edgewise. People throw out that Stephen Covey quote a lot, so I’ll go ahead and throw it out there that listening to respond rather than listening to understand, where you’re trying to basically, I want to get my opinion heard as opposed to fully understanding the opinion of the other person that you’re talking to.
To answer your two-part question, to point out to people that they interrupt, you’ve got to have a conversation with them, and then say, “Can I tell you a little bit about what I noticed in that last conversation we had?” Point to those places where they interrupted you. Point to the places where they were talking over, and then ask them, “What were you thinking in that moment?” Chances are they were thinking, “I have something important to say, and I want to share it. I’m going to share it right now.” Then talk to them about tendencies to interrupt, and it’s not just them. Most people have a tendency to interrupt, and most people have a desire to speak as opposed to listen.
When you explore that example of helping people improve … Now, we’ve got to the noticing part, the second part of that is what insightful tip would you provide to them to look at the other side of interrupting. What tips do you normally give to your classes and those you work with?
There’s a guy named Barnard Ferrari. He’s got a book called Power Listening, I believe, and he had this rule called the 80-20 rule, where he encourages people to listen 80% of the time, speak 20% of the time. He’s got these six question with that book, where he says, “If you ask yourself these six questions prior to your desire to speak while somebody else the floor, if you can’t answer yes to these questions, then you got to keep your mouth shut.” He’s got these six questions within that book. One of them is, “Do I need clarification?” In other words, is there something confusing in this moment that I have to have clarification on right now?”
We go through those six questions, and we go through a recent conversation that they’ve had in the past. I have them recall. Think about the last couple of conversations that you had, chart out how that conversation went and let’s attack these six questions within that conversation. Most of the time, people can’t answer yes to any of them. They realise that in those moments, even though they spent a lot of time in that conversation speaking, they could’ve let the other individual continue talking.
Ironically, we’re going to interrupt this recording to go through the six questions posed by Bernard T. Ferrari in his book, Power Listening. The six questions are: do I need clarification, do I want to hear more about this issue or the one that has come before, do I need to pass an issue to focus on a certain aspect, do I want to head down a different line of discussion, is there a counterargument or a new perspective I want to pose that might cause my counterpart to re-examine their point of view, do I need to end the conversation?
Another one is to play a game where you assign people to listen to another individual tell a story. You just have a participant, say, “Come up with some story, what you did yesterday, or what happened in your father, daughter’s last birthday,” or whatever, something that they can speak on for a couple of minutes, and then require the listener to do nothing, to say nothing, and just listen. Then talk to through how that … Was it hard? Was it easy? What were you thinking at that moment? These kind of trainings where you … For instance, they train physicians to listen to a patient’s story as opposed to interrupting. There’s a stat that’s around where physicians interrupt patients on average within 18 seconds. There’s some debate about whether that’s true or not, but, nevertheless, we all know a case where a physician or healthcare providers interrupted us to ask us a question or to redirect us as opposed to allowing us to tell the whole story.
What they found is that healthcare providers, physicians in particular, are trained not to interrupt. The patient doesn’t speak for more than 90 seconds, 120 seconds, about a minute and a half, or two minutes, but the fear, of course, is the person is going to speak all day, that they’re going to take my entire day, that I’m never going to be able to see all my patients, or I’m never going to make it to my next meeting. I think if we can ally that fear, if we can allow people to get over the fear that this person is not going to talk all day, and this person is not going to take your entire morning, once we can allow that fear, then we can allow the other person to tell their story.
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When you’re listening at that level for patterns and context, what does the literature tell us, or what has been your insights when you start to listen not just to the content and how the contents connected together and then why it landed at the gas station?
Scholars break it up into different dichotomies, but the more basic, or maybe one of the more earlier dichotomies is this notion. There’s two types of meaning within any given message or any given communication. There’s meaning at the level of the content. People call it denotative meaning, content-level meaning, service-level meaning. Nevertheless, this notion that there’s meaning at the level of the words, most of the time, you’re speaking with someone that shares a language with you. You’re grounded in terms of these words are typically used to mean these things in this context. If you just add up the meaning of all the words together, you got the meaning of the sentence, or you have the meaning of the paragraph, you have the meaning of the dialogue, monologue.
Of course, underneath that is what we call relational meaning or how the words are supposed to be taken to mean, or by using these words, what is this speaker intending to do in this context. When we speak, we do more than just communicate these words. We’re promising. We are plying. We’re questioning. We’re directing. We’re doing any number of things. To get at that deeper, past the service-level meaning, we’ve got to pay attention to what is the person intending to do. You not only got to comprehend on what the individual is saying and the words that they’re using, but you got to understand and be able to recognise those speech acts, those actions that the person is trying to employ in that language.
That goes back to what are they saying, what are they not saying. It also goes back to are they speaking in a chronological pattern, are they speaking in a problem-solution patter, or are they jumping all over the place? Is the logic connected? What kind of connections are they making, and why are they making those connections even if they’re not clear in the language? If they’re not clear, how do you ask questions to get them to clarify the connections that they’re making? That relational level meaning also in addition to what they’re trying to do, people, also, through their language indicate how they see the relationship between them and you as a listener.
A sentence as simple as, “Can we meet at 5:00 today,” can mean completely different things if said in a particular way by a particular person toward another individual who they see as responsible or irresponsible. “Can we meet at 5:00 today,” might be an indicator of respect, whereas, “Can we meet at 5:00 today,” might indicate a you’ve been ignoring me, you’ve been irresponsible, get it together kind of a thing. How I see you, how I see our relationship, that’s also embedded in this relational level of meaning that we got to pick up on as listeners as we listen to other people.
You used the example earlier on where everybody thinks they’re above average. What are the kind of signals that a listener can send to the speaker to ensure the speaker fully comprehends that you are in fact listening carefully?
That’s the intriguing thing about listening is it has been generally thought of as a cognitive phenomenon, but the only way we know other people are doing it is behaviourally. It operates cognitively but is perceived behaviourally. A lot of the things … Not a lot of the things. Almost 100% of the things that we do that signal that we are listening all are behavioural. There are the eye contact, the head movements, the gestures and so forth, so the words that we speak. In the research that we’ve done, we have found that verbal actions, primarily, are more important to people’s perceptions of others as good listeners than are the nonverbal components. Not that the nonverbal components are unimportant. It’s just that we attribute competency in listening or goodness in listening primarily as a function of those verbal components.
I think one of the reasons that I raised in our research that we speculate that is, is because our verbal components tend to be what Jan Bavelas calls specific responses, responses that are tied to specific moments in the conversation. They just can’t go anywhere, whereas many but not all of the nonverbal components that we studied tend to do what are called generic responses, or responses that can go anywhere in the conversation. They’re not tied to a specific moment in the conversation, although there are examples of nonverbal that are specific like raised eyebrows could indicate surprise or open mouth to indicate shock, a grin to indicate laughter or agreement. Many of the nonverbal that we have studied, like eye contact, for instance, or things that we’re expected to do throughout a conversation as opposed to one specific point in the conversation.
Specific, and oftentimes, verbal indicators that I’m paying attention to you, saying something relevant when someone seized the floor and looked at you and asks for permission to keep going. The interesting thing about speakers is they don’t speak for very long unless a listener indicates interest, attention, and permission to continue. Speakers, when they’re talking, they do this. When speakers are speaking, they don’t hold eye contact with listeners 100% of the time, but listeners tend to look at speakers more often when they’re listening. When speakers do look up at a listener, that is called … Again, this is Bavelas’ word, she calls it the gaze window. What she found is the majority of specific responses happen in that window, which suggests that speakers are looking to listeners for, again, interests, attention, and permission to continue talking.
If you don’t do those things, if you don’t signal interests, if you don’t signal attention, and if you don’t give permission, they keep going either implicitly by saying, “Uh-huh, yeah, right,” or nodding, or explicitly by going, “Oh, please continue. This is really interested, tell me more,” or asking questions, or whatever the case might be, then what she found is people who are distracted from doing that, the person speaking not only speaks for a less time, but their narratives are less coherent and they tend to repeat themselves because they’re not sure the listener was there paying attention.
Brings me to the 125-400 rule, which is 125 to 150 words per minute spoken, and 400-plus heard, what techniques or insights do you have for our listeners to help them stop drifting off because there’s a mathematical certainty that it’s very difficult to stay focused if the speaker is only at 125 to 150 words a minute, and you can listen to three to four times as much. How do you give people some techniques to stay in the dialogue rather than drifting away and thinking about what they’ve got to order for lunch or what bill they need to pay later on in the evening?
Yeah. I mean, I think, well, first of all, it’s inevitable. We’re going to drift off. That’s just, I think, maybe human nature, but I encourage people to play a game with themselves. I’m challenging myself how many pieces of information can I remember, or I’m challenging myself how many connections can I make with what this person is saying to something I’m interested in, whatever the challenge is, right? It’s a game. It keeps you focused on what the person is saying as opposed to how you might respond. One thing might just be the way that you process information, the way that we set up physiologically.
The other is culture. I’m not sure how universal this is. Well, I know it’s not universal, but I don’t know how universal it is. In Western cultures in particular, we’re trained that if you don’t respond immediately, that’s a problem, that if there’s any silence in the conversation, right, something must be wrong with the connection. Something must be wrong with the listener. We were trained, and I don’t know if this is explicit or just embedded inter-culturally, and we learn after socialisation, but still … We’ve got to respond almost immediately, not only with text messages but also in face-to-face conversations, so that silence is some sort of uncomfortableness. This is not true in all cultures.
Silence is a sign, in some culture, that the person is contemplating and thinking about it. You can have whole conversations where one person speaks and speaks for maybe 90 seconds to 120 seconds, and then there’s maybe two minutes of silence while the other person is thinking about how to respond. That’s okay. Now, I don’t necessarily want to advocate two minutes of silence for every two minutes of speaking, but I think that if we can embed, for instance, in our organisations that it’s okay for there to be silence, then we can start to retrain our need or tendencies to want to fill that space with words.
We talked to Dr. Tom Verghese, an expert in multicultural communication. He actually touches on the difference between high context and low context cultures, and the role of silence. Generically, if you want to separate them, it would be Western and Eastern cultural orientations. The silence is much more observed, respected, and used in the high context cultures, particularly China, or in Japan, and Korea than, necessarily, in our Western cultures. Maybe there is something we can learn from each other’s cultures in that regard because helping to unpick the 125-400 rule because equally true to the listener, and it’s true to the speaker, that although they can speak at 125 words a minute, they’ve got between 400 and 900 words stuck in their head trying to get through the mechanics of their vocal cords.
A question that simply says this, are you thinking about anything else on this topic? That often helps to unpick for the speaker. Well, what I really wanted to say on that topic was … In those moments, that’s where the listening goes up dramatically for both parties because the speaker is able to listen to what they think they want to say rather than the first thing that comes out of their mouth. The speaker, through the simple context of a question, which is a non-content question, I’m curious about what else you’re thinking about this topic, makes a powerful breakthrough in a lot of cases. Do you have a favourite question that helps to explore the unsaid for the speaker?
My question, I love, what else, or some iteration of that question, which is an assumptive question, right? It’s not, “Do you have anything else.” It’s, “What else is there,” which assumes there is something else and that it’s okay to share it, and oftentimes, there is something else. That question, if you use it too much, then people, “Wait a minute, stop asking me what else.” You can play around what other kinds of questions might extend the person’s talking time. My favourite is what else.
Isn’t that great to hear a master listener in action? Graham’s breadth and depth of understanding in the field of listening is quite astonishing. Did you enjoy the story about Glenn the gas station owner, who was Graham’s first linguistics teacher. Which one of the six questions will you use going forward? My favourite question was do I need any clarification. As a result of speaking to Graham, I have so much more consciousness of my verbal listening cues and how that impacts the listener’s perception of my listening. I appreciated the time Graham spent to explore the role of silence and what that means for dialogue.
My big takeaway from Graham’s discussion is the three elements of listening that makes the biggest impact, interest, attention, and permission. How conscious are you of showing interest, attention, and asking for permission? When we look at the Chinese character ting, all six elements summarise that really well. I know I’ll spend more time personally while listening and asking for permission. Thanks for listening.
Deep Listening is a book that everybody needs to read, regardless of how great a listener we deem ourselves to be. As a professional executive coach, I value the skill and impact of deep listening. As a human being, I also see when and where I fail or forget to practise deep listening. This book is such a valuable resource for professionals who are trained to listen, or professionals who need to listen more and don’t know how, and for all people who want to improve relationships and understanding with the people that they interact with. Deep Listening is a keeper, one that will always be on my bookshelf as a reference and reminder. It’ll always be on my gift list to my clients and friends because of the ripple effect I know it will have on their lives and the lives of the people that they listen to deeply. Thank you, Oscar, for writing this book.