One thing scientists do is to find order among a large number of facts, and one way to do that across fields as diverse as biology, geology, physics and astronomy is through classification. – Alan Stern
I’m looking for an entry point into this question of how to listen well and this post is about finding something that works.
Let’s start by looking up at the stars.
Since time immemorial people have looked up and seen the night sky.
When you look up you see points of light – individual, discrete, separate – dots of randomness.
As you keep looking, however, you start to realize that there are patterns in the randomness – patterns you can see from your point of view.
And so people started to draw patterns to make it easier to show what they saw in the sky – and we now have constellations.
You probably know how to look up and see the Big Dipper and from that work out where the north star is.
Let’s start with this idea of points and connections and see where it takes us.
Picking up on the little things
There are many situations where you have to listen – you might be practicing to become a counselor or a therapist.
You could be a journalist or a lawyer.
You might be an ethnographer or anthropologist.
Or you could be listening for work, as a consultant, a meeting participant or as an entrepreneur.
The process of communication is a complex, nuanced activity.
One way of looking at it is to see it as a series of steps where someone takes what’s in their heads, encodes it in a message using language, speaks it aloud, at which point it enters your head and is decoded and creates meaning for you.
You don’t get exactly what someone else is thinking directly – you recreate a thought in your head from the message you receive.
Some things are inevitably lost in the process and you will probably add some things that weren’t in the original transmission at all.
Which actually adds a couple of dimensions to my starting point of nodes and connections, which is the intent and motivation of the participants in the conversation.
The purpose of a journalist might be to find the story, find something juicy and salacious, while a lawyer is looking for facts, specific things they can evidence, and an ethnographer looks for the hidden meaning and culture that underpins spoken words and actions.
If you’re in business you’re probably looking at all those points, even if you don’t realize it at the time.
But you’ll always start by collecting the points that are being made by people.
The first way to start is by just listening to what’s being said, remembering the points in your head.
What do people who are very good at just listening do?
How do they take in what’s being said and remember it pretty well later on?
If you watch such people there’s a to-and-fro process taking place.
First, they’re listening intently, taking in every word.
There’s a real interest in the narrative, in the story, perhaps a personal connection.
As they listen they’re connecting what’s being said to what they already know, and they’re asking questions and restating what they hear to make sure they understand it and, in the process, fixing it in their memory.
After all, this process is the oldest form of social communication, as people sit together, walk together and have a chat – gossip and share information and connect with each other.
What’s shared will always be affected by the intent of the people involved – perhaps it’s gossip, news about what’s happening.
Or it’s sharing a concern or worry with a friend, someone who will listen without judgment and let you unburden yourself.
Or it’s working through a problem, figuring out how to do something, what you need or what the order of activities needs to be.
The process of talking it out is the process of problem solving or problem sharing in the moment.
In many situations you need things to last for longer than the moment, where you need to remember and come back to the points that were made and show what happened.
That’s when you need to start taking notes.
Let’s run through a quick list of how people take these notes.
Ethnographers talk about headnotes, the points you remember in your head while you’re in the middle of a situation that you want to remember but can’t pull out a notebook or where it would be inappropriate to do so, like in the middle of a ceremony or ritual.
The minute you have some time you jot down points that will help you to remember what went on – jottings on a scrap of paper or in your notebook.
In many other situations it’s natural and expected to take notes – as a lawyer, journalist or business person you can pull out a notebook and start taking down points and no one will really complain unless they’ve asked to be off the record.
This stage is all about collection, getting down the points that are made so you don’t lose track of them as the conversation progresses.
When do you start making sense of them?
As you write you will find that points are naturally connected in the way they are expressed.
No one comes out with completely random or disconnected ideas.
Most sentences will relate to the ones before and after them in some way, unless they are truly the start of a new idea or concept.
So even just taking down notes of a conversation as it develops, linear notes of point after point will have a narrative structure and reflect what is in someone’s mind.
The only thing is that what they have in their mind is not linear – it just comes out that way because you have to say one thing after another when you speak.
There’s actually a construct in someone’s mind, a collection of connected ideas that they don’t necessarily see as one but that underpins what they tell you.
They have to convert that construct into words that come out one at a time and, if there aren’t too many words, you may be able to reconstruct that construct from the words you capture on the page.
But the natural next step is to look at methods that help you make that construct physically obvious, by moving from linear notes to maps of notes – using visual methods to represent the points and the connections.
This activity of grouping, whether done by classifying at the linear, paragraph and sentence based level or using visual approaches, is what helps you bring some order to everything you’re hearing, it’s what makes it easier to make sense of what’s going on.
But it’s not a question of one or the other – it’s really about what’s best at what time.
Understanding is an iterative process
The reason you’re listening is to understand and that means you are going to go around a loop a few times.
If you’re just listening without taking notes, you do that by asking questions and restating what you’ve heard in your own words to check that you’re understanding things correctly.
If you’re taking notes then you have to put things in a form that someone else can look at to confirm whether you’ve got things right.
The three basic capturing methods I’ve looked at very generally in this post – remembering things in your head, writing things down in a linear fashion and writing things down in a visual fashion will need some expanding – there are a number of methods out there.
Some of these are trademarked and well known while others less obvious.
There does seem to be a tendency for people to create an approach and then look to protect it in some way, which ends up with a number of approaches that are fundamentally similar but have different names and slight subtleties that let the creators claim ownership over them.
I think the next post is about listing some of these approaches and resources, so we’ll come to that next before we go onto the task of making connections and creating meaning.