Apple Award Winning Podcast
Allan Parker is a Behavioural Scientist and the Managing Director of Peak Performance Development Pty Ltd, a Sydney based consultancy company. His areas of expertise include negotiation, organisational change, and dispute Management. His clients have included Microsoft, AMP, BNP Paribas, Macquarie Bank, NSW Bar Association, the OECD and United Nations. He is the co-author of the best-selling book ‘Switch on Your Brain’ and author of ‘The Negotiator’s Toolkit’, among others.
Allan Parker shares his insights on listening from his unique perspective of behavioural science. He speaks not only about listening with your ears but with your brain, with your gut, your breathing, nervous system and more.
When you are listening, Allan suggests ‘hitting the pause button’ on the conversation, and taking the time to check with the speaker that what you have heard is correct. It is easy to misinterpret what someone is saying, perhaps due to context or words with multiple meanings. Do you need to ask the speaker to repeat what they have said? Listening for meaning, and not just to the words is so important.
The consequences of not listening are serious, says Allan, and our own chatter inside our brain needs to be quietened in order to listen correctly. He explains how focusing on our peripheral vision can turn down the volume of this internal chatter.
How can we show a speaker that we’re listening? Nodding is a confirmation that we’re tuned in. Facial expressions such as eyebrow raises, and eye movement shows that we’re truly thinking about what we’re hearing. Undisturbed features, on the other hand, may indicate that we’re not actually taking much onboard, engaging in ‘pretend listening’.
Tune in to Learn
- The different ways we process information while listening – are you an audial or visual thinker?
- How we bring our own bias to the conversation by ‘feeling’ too early
- Why to wait for one full breath before you ask a question
- Why the fewer words the better, to eliminate bias
- How to be present, in ‘this three seconds’
Episode 37 – Deep Listening with Allan Parker
Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words.
Our best listening is done without our body. So, if we could listen with our eyes and ears, clarify and confirm, and once we’re certain that we’ve got the meaning the person wants, then I can check in on how I feel, which is the sort of things that sometimes people do is pretend listening, and sometimes it’s authentic listening. However, if every now and again I stop and I go, “Can I just check that I’ve got it right what you’re saying?” that what you’re doing is you’ve got constant nodding going on, which the audience can’t see, but you’re nodding. Each time I say something that appeals to you, your eyebrows raise up.
I think if somebody said to me, “How do we improve the productivity of Australian business?” I would say hit the pause button before you speak. Take a breath, because oxygen to the brain will increase the thinking. Regularly check what you’ve heard and understood the meaning that the person wants to deliver, not my opinion, my judgement, my assumption, my hallucination, but to really reflect back and check that what you wanted me to hear is what I’ve got. And it would mean that you’d feel heard. You’d feel more confident that whatever I was going to do with what you’ve told me is just a mathematically better chance.
In this episode of Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words, we listen to Allan, a behavioural scientist. Explore with me as Allan deconstructs how I listen to him during the interview. Learn about how to speak so the other person can listen to you completely. Notice how Allan uses the neuroscience of listening, the role of the brain and a new discovery for me, the roll of the nervous system and how it controls what you hear and what you shut down from hearing as well. I’m excited about how Allan explores listening in time, through time, and across time. This is one of the most challenging interviews for me personally, as Allan really expanded the landscape about how to listen beyond the mind. Let’s listen to Allan.
Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words the book is available via Amazon or at oscartrimboli.com/books. It’s organised in a really practical way around the five levels of listening. Whether I speak on stage or listeners who email me after listening to the podcast, the most common question is, what’s the most practical tip I can give somebody to improve their listening? And it always starts with level one: Listen to yourself. How do you prepare yourself so that you can listen to somebody else in the dialogue? And the deeper that you breathe, the deeper you listen. Check out the book Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words, and you’ll be able to move from an unconscious listener to a deep and powerful listener.
I’ve got a bigger, broader question of why is this of interest to your audience? And part of me wants to say because my research would indicate that we listen more poorly every day, and we have an urgent need to turn that around. But that’s my view. The majority of people think they listen pretty well, and I think that’s part of the problem. And of course, the biggest problem is that they listen to the voice inside their head, and while they’re doing that, they’re not hearing you or understanding of what you’re saying, at least what you want them to understand. And that means that their memory of it will be poor because it never actually got in. And the receptors are not working if you’re chatting to yourself.
So at some point I’ll talk briefly about some reliable techniques around momentarily silencing the inner chatter because it’s just determining which part of the brain is working. And the auditory part is just to be truly in autopilot and chatting the whole time. And like any part of the nervous system or the brain, the bit that we use gets stronger and predominates. Unfortunately we then think that’s how we are. But it’s actually conditioned and learned process, and we can quiet it.
Most people have no clue that they think outside their head. But of course, we do, particularly in the visual channel when we’re thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow, or next week, or in a year’s time. The moment we start going through time, our brain has thoughts into the future. And if I said to you, “What did you leave on the cupboard when you left home this morning?” part of your brain would actually go to the kitchen in your home. And we don’t actually realise. Some people will make a picture of that inside their head, but many people will actually in the moment imagine that they went back into the house, and their thought process is way outside.
So, it’s this fascinating world in which there would be benefit if we all just paused and hit the pause button and went, “Hang on just a sec. Am I really listening and paying attention? Do I need Oscar to repeat what he just said?” One of the things I do in one of the training programmes I do is I say to people, “I’m going to make a simple statement. I want you to notice how you interpret it and how you feel, what pictures you make.” And I go, “And the statement is I just finished a training session.”
Now, the people who know me as an educator and a trainer have a picture of me finishing a training session with a group of people. The people who know me as an endurance athlete see me just finishing a run. People who are not as aware of what I do physically would think I just finished a session in the gym. So there’s two simple words, and I’ve got a group of people who’ve interpreted it simply because the word “training,” which happens to be what’s called an unspecified verb, which means you can hear it and know what the word is, but you can make multiple definitions or meanings or pictures associated with it. And we do that a whole host of the time.
Practically, Allan, for our audience, what are the techniques you use to quieten down the voice in your head so you can be present to hear the other?
I’ll give you a variety of them, and each of them, for the people who it’s not suitable, because I’m going to match the brain to style, the people who like to feel and experiment and do and move and touch stuff, the people who are kinaesthetic or active learners, I just say to them, “Just take the volume control and turn it down.” Now, somebody who’s not of that nature or that type of brain will go, “Oh, how ridiculous.”
There are some people who are very spatially-oriented, and you’ll watch them; they’ll be gesturing, and their gestures will be quite structured and organised. To those people I say, “Just take it further away, and the further away you take it, the lower the volume.” A lot of people think inside their head, and others think outside their head. The people who think inside their head have no clue that the people who think outside are thinking outside. And the people who think outside have no clue that everybody else is … See, we all think we think the same way.
Some people will spell by remembering writing the word, and they’ll say, “Oh, let me write it.” And other people will say, “Let me remember the sounds,” and they’ll remember it auditorally by sound. And some people will say, “Oh, let me just make a picture of that.” And you’ll often notice they often look up, and they’re picturing off up in the ceiling because less distraction.
And so, each particular preference, now, 50% of everybody who makes pictures, which is about 60% of the world’s population make pictures–well, we all make pictures, but they think consciously and are aware they have pictures–they invariably are good spellers because they make a picture of the word, and the picture is a copy of what they saw. So, they can actually not only spell it, most of them can spell it backwards, whereas the people who sound it out will be the poor spellers because our language is not phonetic.
People who write it are amazingly accurate, but couldn’t spell it if they couldn’t write it. So each of those particular ways that our brain works needs to be utilised. So generally speaking, and the quickest and fastest and surest way is if I get you to switch your peripheral vision on, so I’m just flickering my fingers at the moment so that I can see to the far right and to the far left of me at the same time, see, we’re the only vertebrae in the world that actually has our direct vision switched on, and we’re mostly unaware of what goes on the side, but all other animals track that.
If we turned on what’s going on in our peripheral vision, that part of the brain completely switches off the speaking, auditory part of the brain straight away. Now, if I do that to you and I put my fingers out there, and just arms wide out, now, you’re not going to do that in public or in front of somebody, but you can practise that and just stimulate. It’s stimulating the neurons in the brain, but they’re visual neurons. And I have a visual while I’m looking at you directly, and I’m looking at John indirectly, and I’m looking at the cup of coffee over here, and I’m tracking a wide lens. When I do those three visual processes, the auditory brain switches off and takes a rest.
And those people who go, “Oh my goodness, I’ve just got this chatter going on inside my head the whole time that keeps me awake at night.” But I just say to them, “Lie on your back. Look at the ceiling and see if you can see the extreme sides of the ceiling. The minute your peripheral vision is on, you’ll find a relaxation will occur and the voice will quieten.”
The other one which I mentioned is just us, somebody turned the volume down, or take it further away, or take the voice outside your head so that you could actually hear the voice over to the side as if it’s coming in, not being made in. That one will take a little bit of practise for most people. But the people who are spatial and auditory, they’ll go, “Oh, my goodness, it was so easy.” So it’s really important for people to recognise that just experiment with all of them. They’ll all work if you persist. But there is one of them that will work best for each person because of how their brain is sorted and organised.
What are you deducing as my preference in those styles you talked about earlier on?
Well, it’s a little bit harder for the listeners because they can’t see what I can see, but your head is turned indirectly at about 30 degrees, which means that you’re visually operating, but you’re softly visually operating. If I was looking at you and you were looking at me, direct eye contact, direct head, and your brows furrowing, and your pupils are dilating, and your face is going red, that’s just because if I face you direct, there’s a hard visual which you’re not, you’re a soft visual.
In fact, you had your head tilted around with your left ear, which is your dominant ear, closer to me. It’s an indication that you’ve got the visual part of your brain and the auditory part of your brain working, so you’re taking in the words and transferring them into pictures almost simultaneously. Now, your voice is considered slower and softer than the majority of people who’d be in a busy workplace.
And that, and your pausing, and the amount of movement that’s going on in your eyes indicates that you’re thinking, considering, listening carefully, but also every now and again, like you just did, your head tilts to the side, and there’s a furrowing, which means, “Oh, I’ve now got think about where am I going next.” Yeah, so it’s strongly … It’s softly visual but very considered with your auditory channel, just in our interaction now.
What has got me curious about, and I’m sensing maybe the audience would be asking, is there a natural sequence in the way the brain processes those various-
Lovely. Every one of us has a brain that processes visually, so we see the world, and we store it in our brain in pictures, and some of us store it in movies. Some people even have multiple screens above their head where they store multiple things. And they’re usually better at tracking complexity. The auditory brain is really important to listen to the words. The auditory part of the brain is critical in formulating our questions.
The visual part of the brain means that we’ll remember better because the visual brain certainly recalls better than the auditory brain. However, there’s a little thing in between what I’m saying and your pictures called hallucination. And unless you are saying, “Allan, can I just stop you for a minute. Can I check what you’re saying is,” and confirming the pictures that you’re making, you could be storing a whole different story. And that’s why I say to people we’ve got to be interrupting regularly because we’ll either be making pictures of what I’m making based on what I’m hearing, but there might be some of the stuff that I’m saying that is of no interest to you, so there are no pictures, but then all of a sudden there’s something you go, “Wow, I’ve got a little movie show going on.” Now, you’ll remember that more.
So, if I can use, like I did when you said, “What style am I operating in?” and I tried to explain to the audience what I was seeing that indicates to me which part of your brain is working, now that was me describing something in pictorial form. So I mentioned the tilt of the head, the furrowing of the brow, the reddening of the face–they all stimulate increased pictures. And if I’m accurate in my visual description, they’re more likely to have the picture that is the one that I’m trying to get across.
The really interesting one is the kinaesthetic senses. And unfortunately, a lot of the time I’ll say something, and you’ll have an emotional reaction to it, but it doesn’t match what you like, it’s something sensitive to you, it’s a place that you’re not very confident or comfortable or competent in. And you’ll have a physical reaction. While you’re having that physical reaction, and then going, “Um, I’m not feeling very good about that,” so you have the feeling, and then you commentary the feeling. And you’re missing what I’m saying.
So, we’ve got to be really careful with the kinesthetic bit, which is movement, taste, touch, smell, emotions, and sensory. It’s, “Am I tired? Am I hot? Am I cold?” And our best listening is done without our body. So if we could listen with our eyes and ears, you clarify and confirm. And once we’re certain that we’ve got the meaning a person wants, then I can check in on how I feel. But we have a feeling far, far too prematurely, and it’s why we interrupt each other.
We’ve spent some time talking about the wiring of the brain. But I’m curious to explore the impact of the nervous system and particularly the gut, which has probably more receptors than even our brain and how that shows up.
It’s a question that has changed substantially from 10 years ago, and from five years ago, and the last year or two. It was I can’t remember when I gut response was something a woman did. No serious man would do that because he operated from logic, which of course is total nonsense. The gut sense is now an item that neuroscience is studying really substantially. And the neuroscience is almost without exception giving much greater validity to it.
One of the reasons is that there’s a major nerve that runs straight down the centre of your body called the vagus nerve, and at the solar plexus it branches to every major organ in your body. So it’s almost like a control centre. So if you were to hear something and you go, “Wow, that’s a really high risk. I’ve got to be careful about that,” it will heighten your attention to what’s said. It will reduce any activity in your gastrointestinal system. It’ll reduce the production of water and substances through your kidneys. It’ll slow down the use of the liver. And it will just trickle out a little bit of cortisol and adrenaline to keep you sharp and alert. And that sharp and alertness will actually take blood out of your brain.
So, you are more likely to be alert but more focused and more fixated. And you’ll switch off your brain to anything that’s peripheral, even if it’s important. So it’s important for us to recognise that that vagus nerve is like a maximum speed brain, that before you could even cognitively think it, the vagus nerve is saying, “Oscar, stop. Don’t do that.” And you’re about to ask a question. There’s a gut feel that says, “Don’t,” and it’s the vagus nerve. And it’s really good at saying yes and no.
In fact, I have a belief that at least 50% of all stress in human beings is that the vagus nerve is saying, “No, don’t do that,” and we do, and the opposite. Sometimes it’s saying, ” Go ahead and do that,” and we don’t. And if we don’t listen to this, the feedback in the nervous system, it will cause louder sounds. Now, those louder sounds, that feedback will distract us from good hearing because I’ll get anxious.
In your professional work, establishing trust across parties is probably heightened through the vagus nerve or not. What suggestions would you give others to build trust so that that isn’t activated or is activated?
What a beautiful question and unbelievably complex. Trust is misunderstood. Trust is really your nervous system saying, “Reliable, unreliable? You can count on this person or not.” Now, if I jump in and I go, “Yeah, I’m going to work with you,” but my gut is saying, “No, don’t,” I’ll hit a point at some stage where I’ll go, “I don’t trust you.” And the vagus nerve is setting down there probably going, “Oscar, I told you that.” But we don’t listen to the signals.
Trust is really about reliability, about, “Can I count on you to do what we agreed?” Now, you can’t do that unless I’ve been really careful listening what you’re asking me. And if I don’t clarify and confirm exactly what that means to you, and what that means, and how you’d like that to happen, and where you’d like that to happen, and in what time frame, and how quickly, or how many bits do you want me to break it down into, I could go off doing it how I think, and then you go, “That’s not what I said.” And I’ll go, “Yes, it is.”
And now you’re going to walk around not trusting me, but it’s not about trust, it was about misunderstanding. We want to wait … We rush … We just rush through things, really. When we’re negotiating, generating ideas, making decisions, it really is time for us to hit the pause button and go, “Let me just do this slowly. Let me just take a little bit of time and every now and again go, say, “So, Oscar, you’re actually interested in the trust phenomena. What would be the reason that the audience would be interested in that? And what had you choose trust? It could’ve been credibility or it could have been integrity. What was it that made that important for you?” Now, if I were to ask that now, I’m going to get much richer information, and we don’t simply do clarify and confirm.
Deep Listening is a beautiful pocket rocket of insight. Oscar Trimboli reveals the loss of connection, understanding, and impact that our listening often brings. I found his unpacking of what we are really listening to be profound for me personally as well as incredibly useful for the clients I work with. This book is important: It provides tangible and doable ways to improve and deepen our listening. Oscar tells us deep listening creates life-changing opportunities. Thank you, Oscar, for this life-changing book.
I think one of the things you role modelled beautifully is showing up as you listen. And I think for a lot of people in our audience, they struggle to show that to the party they’re listening to. What are the practical things that others could show that not only build trust but show the other they are listening? Because I feel the two are quite connected.
Yeah. The sort of things that sometimes people do is pretend listening, and sometimes it’s authentic listening. However, if every now and again I stop and would go, “Can I just check that I’ve got it right?” But what you’re doing is you’ve got constant nodding going on, which the audience can’t see. But you’re nodding.
Each time I say something that appeals to you, your eyebrows raise up. Each time I say something and your eyebrows raise up, your lips purse. And the other thing is if I say something that you’re not as familiar with and want to work out how that makes sense to you, your eyes move, because our eyes move–that triggers different parts of the brain. Now, the more still your eyes are, the more you’re taking it in, but may not be processing it.
So, when you stop and think, “Ooh, I wonder how I could use that? Who could I do that with?” So, when we’re having those thoughts, our eyes have to configure off to the side. Now, most people respond to that favourably because they know that the person is thinking, but when you’ve actually think about it, and most people don’t even consciously notice it, but you’re almost tightening lips of smiling and the raise of the eyebrows.
And the particularly your sideward tilt of the head when something really is appealing to you, we all have those little signals. And those micro nonverbals are really important. And the greatest one is you wait until I’m finished, and I breathe before you ask me a question, because I think one of the signals that we send most frequently, particularly in the busy business world that we live in and meetings that are back to back, we interrupt mid-sentence so very frequently with only half of the information.
The really visual people, they only need the noun and the verb, and then they can make a picture. Once they can make a picture, they’ve got it. So they don’t need the end of the sentence, whereas the auditory people will go nuts. The detail-oriented people will go nuts because the most important piece of information is usually in the object of the sentence, not the subject. So it’s at the end. So, if we interrupt, we often miss the goal.
Which brings us to the distinction between listening to the words or listening for meaning or anything else there. Is there an example that brings that to life for you that would benefit our listeners?
I’d add an extra element, and that is I’ve got inside my head and my body a notion or an idea. And I’ve got some feelings about that. And I have some experience about it. So I’ve got a reference point associated with the idea that I’m trying to get out, and I’ve got to get this thing that’s in pictures and feelings and ideas, globe sort of feelings, I’ve got to find the words. So, it’s important for us to recognise that there is the intended message. And what we think and feel and try to find the words to convey, if we’re rushing, that’s a really tough call. So, rushing and not taking time to go, “What is it I’m trying to say, and what is it that I want to say that would be of interest to Oscar, to John, to the audience?”
It’s hard for me to consider what am I trying to say? What are the words? Who are the people who are listening to this? Is it the right sort of words? And when I first referred to the vagus nerve, which is a technical, anatomical term, I then said it’s like the alarm system. And it is our primary alarm system. And that was because I was thinking that’s just a little bit too technical. And when you ask about the brain, I thought, “Wow, what’s the easiest, most comprehensive way that I talk about it?” And in fact it was see, hear, and feel. It’s pretty universal.
So, it’s me considering what would be the way to increase the likelihood of you receiving, taking it in, making it important and relevant to you, and then you check in to see that it’s close to what I was trying to get across. And the fact that we do all that in the tiniest amount of time is really quite remarkable. And I think if somebody said to me, “How do we improve the productivity of Australian business?” I would say, “Hit the pause button before we speak. Take a breath, because oxygen in the brain will increase your thinking. Make sure you’ve had plenty of water because water will improve the thinking. And then just check in with somebody,” because sometimes people speak in meetings for five and ten minutes. And I’m always amazed how many people don’t take notes, and I think, “Wow, you’re going to remember that?” And it’s not very likely.
The smaller the bites, the more ways I can say something. The better the quality of my questions, and there is no doubt, the fewer the words, the better the question. In fact, if I could have wish for the human race, it would be the only question they ask would be what and how with less than eight words. If we had what and how with less than eight words, our bias … See, most of our questions are leading questions. In fact, a large amount of them are suggestions: Oscar, don’t you think it would be a good idea if we were to talk to John and get this to be broken into 10 different points of view, given the variety of audience, and we could do it in 2-minute blocks, 5-minute blocks, 15-minute blocks. What do you think about that? That’s a suggestion, but I’ve couched it as a question, and it’s totally my point of view. You’ll notice I didn’t even pause for you to answer.
So, if we got good at acknowledging and exploring that we got the meaning, not the words but the meaning, and then ask what we could do with that to create the maximum benefit for everybody, and then how many different ways might we do that, the world would be different. How many times misunderstanding means that we’re going to go back and do stuff over and over and over, and being clear about what we’ve exchanged I think is by far a way, and just simple acknowledgement and clarification: what and how. And then confirm, “So what you’re saying is bluh, bluh, bluh, bluh.”
Now, 9 times out of 10 when I say, “Oscar, what you’re saying is blah, blah, blah, bluh. Have I got that correct?” you’re going to say, “Yep,” or a no. So then I know that I’ve got to go back and have another go. Or alternately I’ve just generated agreement. Now that’s the best way I can let you know that I heard because I leave it to you to endorse that I’ve heard what you want me to hear.
What’s the role of silence?
It’s a place to breathe. It’s a place to think. It’s a place to interrupt that how we get into sort of just running in … I finish, and you go. And then before we know it, we’re going 300 miles an hour, and neither of us are actually particularly listening. All I’m doing is making sure that I tell you what I want to tell you, and I just need you to hear it. I don’t need you to have anything to do with it. You’re then doing the same thing. We get into that really rushed, busy place. And at some point, in time, somebody with seniority will go, “Oscar, well, the way we need to do it is …” And now I’ve left with natural decision, and you’ve just been overruled. And you’re not going to be very happy, but you probably will never mention it, but you’ll be less likely to input the next time.
And if we just learn to break that repetity, the faster we go, the more adrenaline pumps. The more adrenaline pumps, the less dopamine pumps, and the less dopamine–they’re the little things that fly across the nervous system that actually allows the best thought and the best memory. And if dopamine is not transmitting, we just don’t remember stuff and we don’t have our best thinking–it will be fast and quick, but we’ll forget stuff.
So, if we could just moderate pace, drop it every now and again and go let it go fast, and then go, “Can I just check what was said?” And if we summarised more often, then confirmed with each other that we got across what we want to get across, and not say, “Yes, I understand” so frequently. “I understand.” The other person looks and thinks, “Mmm, I don’t know if that’s true.”
We’ve reflected on listening in a one-on-one context and in a group context. I’d like to expand the horizon and think about listening systemically. Do you have an example of where you’ve dealt with stakeholders of a multiple context, countries, continents where listening matters?
Yep, and if I could answer it two ways, systemic thinking for the audience in my world means that I’m thinking … I’m hearing you speak, and as I’m hearing you, I’m considering the other 4 or 5 or 6 or 10 or 100 people in the room. Now, because my expertise is very large, complex groups, if I’ve got a group of 100 people, I’m watching you with my direct vision, but I’m tracking every person in the room with my peripheral vision, and every time I see somebody take a breath and lean forward, I know they’re the one who’s likely to interrupt you. So I’ll make direct eye contact immediately with the person who breathes, and I’ll indicate to them that I’ll be with them in a minute. And I’ll do that before they get a chance, because human beings particularly in groups take a big breath and then move forward before they speak. Now, all I’m doing is tuning my ears and eyes to who breathes, and whoever that is is potentially the interrupter. And the moment I hear somebody breathe, I take a big breath, and I always raise my hands in the air. Now, the moment I raise my hands in the air, they see it, and they know that I’ve tracked them.
Systemic thinking is it is natural for the brain to think systemically, but because we do things in straight lines in order and sequence, we have programmed events, we run diaries, everything’s in a linear fashion. But a system is the circle around us. And so we’ve actually got to practise stopping and thinking, “Ooh, who are the stakeholders here? How many of them are there? What would that mean?” Now, in my own experience in running international meetings, there’s never a time when I’m hearing somebody speak where I’m not asking myself, “How are the African nations hearing this?” because every word that comes out of an international meeting means something different if you live in Africa. If somebody from an Eastern European country, the minute we in the West talk about providing people with choice, there are people in parts of the world where choice is not a common phenomena.
We talk about peace, and there are people in the world who have lived in countries where there has never been peace, so it’s an abstract concept. So in that instance, I’m constantly giving consideration to who’s being addressed here and who’s being left out. So, I will, I constantly ask idiot question, ” May I just check one thing? If I were somebody in a developing world, what might be the thing that I might want to be considering in terms of computing and social media when a large number of people in my country don’t have a computer?”
And in fact, in some areas where we haven’t had rain for a long period of time, cutting water from the well is of far more interest to them. “And if we could find an innovative way of moving water during drought, my entire country would be interested in that.” So they could have something completely different. So systemically is just about considering firstly all of the people involved, all of the cultures that are involved.
I frequently say to Australians and particularly Australian males, who do a lot of pointing, and I say to them, “In a multicultural society, you need to be careful of the point because 60% of the world’s population would never do it and consider it extremely rude.” So, it’s just one of those things, and I always say to people, “Learn to roll your forearm, roll your arm out and show your hand, but don’t point.”
In fact, I say to people, “Don’t do gestures between your shoulders,” because the Asian cultures just do not move forward or point. And a lot of people, a lot of different cultures don’t even make direct eye contact. In fact, all indigenous Australians don’t make people-to-people eye contact. So, if we can just be not nervously running around going, “Oh my goodness, how do I do that?” but just simply going, ” Let me just stop for a minute and think if I were them, what might that be that I’d be interested in?”
And it’s just like mom and dad having an idea about what the kids need to take for lunch, and they’re packing up the lunch and not aware that there’s a particular event on tomorrow, and the teachers have asked for a particular type of food not to be used. But we get so busy, we don’t have enough opportunity to let each other know what’s going on.
And the more we think about interconnections, the more we think about following up, the more we think about getting back quickly and just say, “Busy at the moment. Can’t get your email. I’ll be there within 24 hours,” whereas a lot of people who don’t think systemically will just go, “Oh my God, I’ve got 360 emails and I can’t get to them.” So systemic is just taking a step back, taking a breath, and going, “In addition to what I normally thinking, what other things could I take into consideration?” And we just, it’s just a practise. It’s like anything: The more we consciously practise it, the more it’ll become natural and automatic to us.
Another one of those distinctions is how people think about time, and whether that’s within culture, or across culture, or across continents, time has a different-
It has a different perspective. How do you provide tips about how to listen through time?
Just if I can, it sounds a bit brash, but just to let the listeners in, formally I’ve run five international meetings on behalf of the United Nations, not at the United Nations. And I’ve run probably 100 meetings for the ICD, which is the sister organisation. So I spent a lot of time with large groups of people. And it’s true the Spanish will actually turn up an hour late, and at 2:00 they’ll go and have a siesta, whereas your fast-moving merchant banker from Wall Street is not going to take a siesta, and probably in at 6:00 in the morning.
And your indigenous Australians, they’ll set time based on the wind, and the sun, and the temperature rather than a clock. And you’ve got to admit, there’s some good sense in it. That dilemma, given that I’ve run meetings … I’ve had 1,200 word leaders in a meeting, and it’s pretty expected in that culture that you start and finish on time. The way that I have come up with thinking about time, which I think helps me interact with all different culture, is I think about the importance of being in time. So here while I’m with you, my brain doesn’t go beyond about three or four seconds, and I’m here in present, and I’m watching your cues. I’m watching John’s, who’s assisting us with the recording, and tracking him. And I’m in the moment, wide-lensed in the moment. So I’m not thinking about yesterday, and I’m not thinking about what we’re going to do in an hour’s time. I’m present to that room and present to the people I’m interacting with. And I frequently say to people, “If you can learn that one skill, be present to and with the person as and while they’re speaking. So be in the moment. And I always say to people, “Be in this three seconds.”
Now, there is through time, so I’ve had and you’ve probably had 2,003 seconds since we started, but I’m watching each one, and I’m thinking about what have I said? What would be of interest to particular people? How would I be sensitive to different cultures who are listening? And if you retract it, most of my language has been what’s called soft or propositional, or choice-laden. So, there’s been no, “This is how it’s got to be,” or, “This now have to….”
So, there’s no type definitive. When you’re dealing with a cross-cultural environment, it’s very important that we provide choice in our language and offer, as I’ve been doing multiple ideas and options and not having a convergent, “This is the way to do it.” Now, when we operate that way in time, but I hold that time for 20 or 30 minutes, most people call it “concentration.” They say, “I’m not good at concentration.” I go, “That’s because your time is too long. See, if you hold three seconds, you can hold three seconds all day.”
So straight away people’s concentration enhances, and then there’s across time: What did we do at the beginning and what did we do at the end? And we often evaluate each other based on what I saw a week ago or a month ago and what I see today. And people will often go, “Oh, there’s been no change.” And I go, “Well, what about through time?”
They could’ve done a wonderful job 15 times in between, and when you saw them and when you’ve assessed them two months later, they may have been nervous because you were there. So across time is something we have far too overused and popularised across time. See, you won’t get an indigenous Australian joining you in a across time. So, if you say, “Now, let’s meet up in months’ time,” I sort of go, “Give it a shot. Don’t have the same expectations that they’ll be in a diary because they’re far more present, and they’re interested in what’s the next step.”
And just to give it a … I’m sure you’re aware I’ve been an endurance athlete for 45 years, and I’ve run 16 marathons and 11 ultramarathons, and I ran 24 hours twice. And people go, “Oh my goodness, how do you do that?” And I go, “Three seconds at a time, one foot after the other.” And the minute your brain goes outside that time frame, you start feeling pain, you start thinking about can I, can’t I? The voice starts to kick in, the negative thoughts come in, the pain comes in, and if we could just get better at being here and now, the difference would be enormous, particularly across culture.
As we come to a close, what would be the one tip you would provide to our listeners to deepen their listening?
Regularly check that you’ve heard and understood the meaning that the person wants to deliver, not my opinion, my judgement, my assumption, my hallucination, but to really reflect back and check that what you wanted me to hear is what I’ve got. And it would mean that you’d feel heard. You’d feel more confident that whatever I was going to do with what you’ve told me is just a mathematically better chance. And the other really important thing is every time I repeat back what you said, it’s going into a different part of my brain, and it’s now stored in two different or three different locations. So, my mathematical chance of memory is just so much higher if I check in regularly that I’ve got what you want me to get.
If we were listening better, and we were in the moment, and I wasn’t venturing back to linking what’s said to something that happened a week ago, and I’m not jumping forward, assuming that this is where we’re going to go with only hearing half the message, I am going to be here, present in the three seconds, and I am going to clarify–once I’ve done that, what can I do to assist the other person in mobilising their thoughts or their ideas?
Allan, you’ve touched on three seconds, and being present, and that helps the listener. How do we help the speaker as well?
Lovely comment. If you’re speaking and every now and again I notice that your eyes start to frequent move, and then you take a big breath, every time you take a big breath, I’m going to come in on the uptake of the breath, and I’ll give back to you what I think I’ve heard or clarify it. And then when you come back to me and go, “Yeah, that’s pretty much how I want you to get it,” I would think, ask a question, the trick is not the future part of the brain, because everybody goes, “So where to from here?” which is a question I’d encourage people to drop that one. But if we go, ” What would or might be the next step in the process?” you can stay in the present and speculate, and there’s actually a part of your brain which I’m pointing to just on the top of right-hand side of your forehead that actually processes speculation.
Now, it’s not an opinion. It’s not down to the future. It’s not having a decision, but what would, could, or might we be able to do? And then make it collective. And that’s the first time that it’s not two of us, but it’s now us. So what could we do with that? Or what might we do to roll that, to gift it to somebody else, to expand it, to get more people involved? What would be something you think would be useful? So, what would, could, might, questions, trigger a beautiful part of the brain that will explore and invent without having the pressure of having to make a decision or be right and wrong? I think that would be how I’d assist the speaker. And I think by doing it well, it’s not assisting the speaker, but it’s enabling us to operate as partners rather than as two individuals.
What a delightful place to finish. Thank you.
I thought I was a good listener. In fact, I’ve staked my business on it. Turns out there’s a lot getting in my way of being able to really, really listen, and one of the biggest changes to my practise is my ability since reading Oscar’s book to notice my internal dialogue and the fact that I often ask presumptive questions. Oscar’s book is small in size, but it’s absolutely not small on quality. It’s beautifully written, it’s gorgeously illustrated, and it packs a serious punch. You cannot be a human being with ears and not read this book.
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What I love about Allan is his ability to explain really complicated topics in a really simple way that’s effective and articulate. What a privilege it was to listen to the way that he explains the connection inside your mind as well as inside your nervous system. It’s refreshing for somebody else to reflect on how I listened during the interview and the things I did well when he talked about the role of nonverbal listening.
In Allan’s own words, he talked about the importance of my micro nonverbals and how my breathing influenced how he was speaking. As science continues to explore the mind, as a new frontier is opening up, and that’s understanding human behaviour as it relates to the nervous system, and specifically Allan mentioned the vagus nerve and the way it connects our whole body together. This is fascinating for me as it expands how I think about listening, but also reinforces some of the most simple things I say to people I work with when I talk about, are you listening to your gut feel, or are you ignoring it at your peril?
I think for a lot of us, we notice that when we’re not listening to our gut and only listening to our head, our listening effectiveness declines. The one big takeout for me was the role of asking questions to deepen your listening but not the way I thought about it. Allan explained that many of the questions we ask are either statements with a question mark or simply biased questions. And the thing that I took away from the interview that I’ve been practising really consistently since then is focus on questions that only have seven words or less.
And I’ve been practising this questioning approach, and it significantly deepened my listening, and more importantly detached me from my bias as a shrewd listener. I wonder what you’ll take out and apply from Allan’s interview. Thanks for listening.
If I go, “Um, what, um, I’m just, um, uh, let me think. I’m just wondering,” that whole stumble is rehearsed. Now, the moment that I do that stumble, I can stumble for 15 minutes, and he will wait until I’m finished. Nobody will interrupt a stumbler. And it sends a message that this isn’t my standard question, that I’m actually formulating the question, which will always capture an audience to go, “Oh, wow, this would be interesting. This is …” Because when I’m going, “I’m just wonder- wondering,” your entire nervous system hits the pause button.
So, if I’ve got a group of people in conflict, and they’re snapping at each other, that’s all I’ve got to do to interrupt it. Your attending nonverbals are exceptional. And you hardly had an eye movement until I paused. So you weren’t even processing what I was saying in your own world until I finished. Now, the average person is never going to notice that, your constant nonverbal affirming. And you’d signal to me nonverbally when you had a question. For me, it was excellent, and I loved where you went to and how you went where you went. Yeah, so certainly there’s nothing glaringly obviously as long as you’re stopping me enough to make sure that the questions the audience want to ask.
Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words.