From Chapter 5, “Communication- A Lost Art” in Ingredients of Outliers
The Listening Stick
One man was so convinced that listening had become a lost art that he decided to mount a campaign to restore it. His name was Ben John Joyce, a California-based consultant and entrepreneur, and the founder of The Center for Applied Excellence. Its Mission Statement: “We teach people how to communicate.”
His stated position on listening got right to the point. “Listening,” he said, “is a skill that has a dreadfully limited number of truly effective practitioners. We’re not taught to listen in school, at home, or at work. On the contrary, we learn the communications process from authority figures whose specialty seems to be talking.”
While I had never heard of Joyce, a colleague of mine, Bob Kelly, knew him well and has copies of Joyce’s listening campaign materials in his files. The centerpiece is a small wooden stick, about the size of a tongue depressor, and appropriately named “The Listening Stick.” Printed on one side are these words: “Please, will you listen to me?” The reverse side has just two words: “Thank you.”
Simple and straightforward, but Ben wasn’t leaving anything to chance. The Listening Stick system included two other pieces: a Quick Use Guide and an Owner’s Manual. The former is the size of a business card with a foldout feature containing bullet points on listening well.
The Owner’s Manual goes into greater detail on what it takes to become a good listener and how to handle situations when the person to whom you’re speaking appears not to be listening. It includes four types of behavior that interfere with the listener’s ability to comprehend your message:
1. The listener has the attention span of a flashbulb.
2. The listener listens with a stop watch.
3. The listener becomes the speaker.
4. The speaker, sensing that the listener is not listening, raises the decibel level.
When any or all of these conditions occur, the Owner’s Manual offers this advice:
“When you discover you are talking to someone who is not listening, stop talking. You have no obligation to provide background noise as accompaniment to whatever distracting activity that currently holds their interest. Neither is it helpful for you to enter into a competition for their attention by talking louder. The other person will have even less concern for listening to you and might even get annoyed if you raise the decibel level.
Simply stop talking and sit quietly. Almost everyone will listen long enough to learn why you fell silent. You will find in many cases that you have created an attentive, if somewhat sheepish, listener. Don’t be concerned. The sheepishness will pass quickly. Be sure to thank those who listen effectively.
Help those who persist in not listening to you by handing them the Listening Stick, question side up. Explain to those who agree to listen that you would like them to hold the Listening Stick to signify that they are listening. At any point, they can indicate that they are through listening by putting it down.”
I’m sorry I never got to know Ben Joyce and that his death in 1996 put an end to his campaign. I can recall many occasions when I’d have found the Listening Stick a very handy device and I suspect that many of my family members, friends, clients, patients, colleagues and others with whom I’ve communicated over the years might well have wished for a similar tool to hand me or to hit me with on occasion.
As the noise at every level of our society keeps getting louder and louder, it’s important for us to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Completing the circuit requires patience, understanding, and civility by all who wish to participate effectively in the—ya’ know—communication process!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- My goal is to be more “present” during conversations—no texting, emailing, or interrupting. What’s yours?
- One of my earlier role models in residency was a 3rd year resident named Judy. What I remember most about her was her ability to focus completely on the person with whom she was interacting. It could be a drunken patient or a screaming gang member, but no matter who they were, they felt they had her undivided attention.