The Art of Listening

February 21, 2019

In a number of articles on this blog I’ve talked about listening skills and how, on the whole, they’re under-developed and usually under-appreciated (see for example here). This has implications for both personal and business life.

Suggestions are sometimes given on how to listen better but these are often general and vague. Some more practical advice would be helpful. An article that addresses this is The Art of Listening from The School of Life.

The author points out that:

The real pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in understanding ourselves, becoming clearer about who we are, what we feel, what we want and what we might do next. The pleasure of talking about ourselves lies in self-clarification, not merely in hearing our voices.

It compares this to reading an engrossing book, where we can be totally immersed in one-way communication. The reason is that we’re always thinking about how what we’re reading applies to us:

Novels are stories of other people that we don’t mind hearing; because they are also, at their best, stories that teach us about ourselves. We’re prepared to spend hours hearing other people – like Tolstoy or Proust or Virginia Woolf – talking about their ideas and adventures. And remarkably, we don’t mind not getting a single word of our own into the arena because we’re actively understanding bits of ourselves by listening to their stories.

I’m reminded of a quote

“No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you’ll see why.” – Mignon McLaughlin (American journalist and author)

And the riposte is:

We might well reply that this is all very well, but that the average person we have to listen to is a lot less interesting than Marcel Proust. So no wonder we want to listen to the novelist and not the average person. But the people we have around us are a lot more interesting than we think – if we knew how to listen to them and edit them properly.

How can we mentally edit conversations? They give the following tips and common errors:

a) We keep latching onto factual details: we go on about times, places, external movements – not realising that things become interesting only when people say what they feel about what happened, not merely what happened. 

b) We often get overwhelmed by an emotion we experienced and insist upon it rather than attempting to explain it. So we say, again and again, ‘it was so beautiful’ or ‘it was the scariest thing in the world’ but without accurately unpacking the feeling and thereby being able to make it live in someone else’s mind. 

c) Just when we promise to get a bit interesting with our narration, we take fright. We get scared of our own emotions, which can threaten to trigger feelings of unbearable sadness, confusion and excitement. We take flight into superficiality. 

d) Then we don’t stick with one story. There is so much in our minds, we keep opening up new subplots.

So when listening, stop your companion digressing; say things like, ‘So a minute ago you were saying that….’ Bring them back to the last coherent and emotionally ‘alive’ part of the story. Draw them away from numb surface details to deeper emotional realities. Ask: ‘what did that feel like for you…?’ 

It ends with the optimistic:

That way, listening is no longer a chore. It’s about the most interesting thing we can do.

Why don’t you try it and see?


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 2)

February 8, 2019

This is Part 2 of a description of a talk I was invited to give to staff at the legal firm of Lima and Falcao by the owner Tiago Lima. It took place in Recife, northeast Brazil in November 2018.

In a previous post I discussed some of the attributes for a successful career and the tricky art of learning from mistakes. The rest of the talk focused on the role of taking and giving strategic advice and the importance of listening skills.

The Benefits of Taking Advice

To illustrate this I gave an example from my own career, when I was doing my PhD in particle physics at Imperial College, London (it’s to be found embedded in a much longer article entitled The Higgs Effect).

On one occasion word went out that he (Prof Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) wanted to interview each of the particle physics PhD students. There was a handful of us and no reason was given. This was quite unusual as we interacted with all the other staff on a regular and easy basis and communication was excellent.

In my interview somehow or other I started going on about the low public profile of particle physics even though some amazing advances were being made and they weren’t being well communicated to the public. He agreed with me, said it was an important topic and suggested I seize the opportunity and do it myself! This totally shocked me as this wasn’t the sort of career or activity I had in mind, although with hindsight it might have been excellent advice.

I’ve often thought about this and how best to benefit when being in the (rare) situation of talking to someone who can give advice from a genuinely big picture. My guess is that they’ll always say something you don’t expect and you might even find a bit odd! That’s because they see things completely differently (years of experience, wider network, deeper insights).

However I think the smart thing to do is to write the idea or suggestion down, leave it a while (let it incubate) and then just openly think about it even if it contradicts practically everything else you’re doing. I’m not saying I would have been good at popular science or that I would (in reality) have enjoyed it but I did lose an opportunity by not giving it the attention it deserved.

As we’re often told, chance favours the prepared mind. In this case, being prepared for the unexpected!

The general point is to listen carefully to the advice given and not be judgemental. If the suggestions are not what you were expecting (as in the example above), let the ideas incubate slowly and try to keep an open mind on new possibilities. There may even be connections or opportunities that are relatively easy to develop and try out. In the example above, I could have written a short article for a popular magazine to see what was involved (namely the time and effort required). It would have been a diversion from my main research but a low cost and low risk ‘experiment’.

Nowadays, writing articles and books popularising modern science is fairly common and whole areas of bookshops are devoted to this area.

Listening Skills

Whilst involved in technology transfer projects in a very large science and technology company, QinetiQ, I became interested in the topic of corporate knowledge management. This covers the different ways people create and share knowledge (as opposed to information). One important way is through conversations, where explaining something to someone else can let you see something in a new light or perhaps a question might spark a new idea. A fascinating topic is ‘how do we listen’. Listening to what someone says is actually quite hard as explained in the quote below:

“Very few people are good listeners. A good listener listens slowly to what is being said. He does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge nor does he sit there formulating his own reply. He focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said. He extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way. It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.” – Edward de Bono

Just try it, it really is hard although presumably gets easier with practice.

The table below indicates the common way we converse (discussion) and an improved way (dialogue). If you’re not convinced, just eaves-drop on most conversations, you’ll see that they are usually very one-sided and limited.

The differences between dialogue and discussion

As a practical tip, you could experiment with inserting some dialogue in place of discussion and see what results. This may be especially useful in situations where there is a conflict or established set views or the matter is very important.

In fact this slide created the most interest which is revealing as energetic conversation is a strong feature of Brazilian culture!

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.


The “Iceberg Illusion”: Some Career Insights (Part 1)

February 6, 2019

In November last year I was visiting the city of Recife in northeast Brazil. During the stay, I got to know Tiago Lima, the owner of the law firm Lima and Falcao. He was interested in the variety of career changes I had made and he invited me to give a talk to his staff on the insights I’d gained. As I was thinking about career insights in general this was a fortunate meeting of minds.

I decided to focus on telling stories that were general enough to be transferable to other areas and focused on four main points:

  • The Iceberg Illusion (Skills for Success)
  • Learning from Success and Failure
  • The Benefits of Taking Career Advice
  • Developing Listening Skills

A theme for the talk was to emphasise the realities of career decisions and events and to contrast this with the often simplistic stories of success found in popular business and personal development books.

This and another post will elaborate on the talk.

I started with giving a brief overview of my career so far. The main point is that it spans the academic, government and commercial sectors. Each sector has it’s own strengths and weaknesses and you learn different things in each one as well as with the interactions between them.

The Iceberg Illusion

I spotted this graphic whilst browsing one day and it neatly visualised quite a few things I’d been thinking about. It was produced by Sylvia Duckworth who is an award-winning educator, author, and brilliant sketchnoter.

The picture illustrates the difference between a superficial and deeper analysis of success. What interested me was that the attributes on the bottom were a mixture of ‘character’ skills (determination, hard work etc) and ‘emotional’ skills (handling disappointment, failure). Just having one set of skills is unlikely to be sufficient.

For this slide I explained that the ability to deal (emotionally) with failure and disappointment was essential as it is certain that every task you carry out or aim you have will not always be successful. There will generally be a continuum of results; some really good, a lot average and some rather abject. If you are perceptive and reflective you should be able to learn from all of the results to increase your overall impact.

I was impressed that this advice was given to students, a very mature move. I don’t ever remember anyone saying these sorts of things to me at any time during my career but I think I would have benefitted if they had (and said them at regular intervals, it’s always easy to forget the obvious or unpleasant).

There’s also a fun graphic which illustrates what you think or hope might happen on a project and what can easily happen (the rocky road to success, see here).

In general you have to be able to cope with grimy reality and not just it’s idealisation.

Learning from Success and Failure

Given that not everything will be succesful, it’s helpful to reflect on results to try to learn from mistakes. This is not easy as people often indulge in the blame game ie it was everyone’s fault but not mine! This avoids getting to the heart of the matter.

An associated viewpoint is summed up by this quote:

“Problems are only opportunities with thorns on them.” – Hugh Miller

In other words, it’s sometimes possible to turn a problem (perhaps a mistake) into an opportunity but this may not be straightforward and need some creative thinking.

John Cleese and the Fawlty Towers team

A vivid example of this is given by a Monty Python story, featuring the famous comedian John Cleese. It illustrates how open and closed thinking can yield very different results coming from the same situation. 

The details can be found in my article as well as some tips on creativity by Cleese. They’re simple tips but nonetheless helpful:

  • try and learn something new each day
  • sleeping on problems can be very effective
  • losing something and then recreating it from scratch often yields a better result
  • no distractions (at all) – it’s hard to get back into the flow
  • no one knows where ideas come from
  • create a mood that encourages creativity (the ‘tortoise mind’)
  • establish boundaries in both space and time (an oasis where it is ‘safe’ to be creative)
  • being busy and being creative are probably at odds with each other
  • if you’re purely busy, it probably means that you don’t really appreciate creativity

Although not mentioned in the talk, two other posts are also relevant, the preoccupation with success and the fascination of failure.

The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights

Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and to Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.


Hawking On Talking

May 24, 2018

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” – Stephen Hawking

I think (active) listening is the key point, not just talking. Something that is a lot harder to do!

Interesting graphic below that goes into this in more detail. If you google ‘levels of listening’ you’ll find lots of articles on this model. The challenge, of course, is to go from theory into practice…


Potential for Growth

May 2, 2018

“We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This quote reminded me that you often need to let people know what you have done (some of which they may be blissfully unaware of) but not overegg it. They can’t read your mind and, if they have not known you long, will naturally presume very little.

This is not a matter of boasting or status but diversifying conversations to encourage serendipity.


Listening Bores

November 11, 2017

I’ve written quite often on this blog on the advantages of really listening to people during conversations. A difficult task at the best of times. Here’s another viewpoint 🙂

“No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you’ll see why.” – Mignon McLaughlin (American journalist and author)


Clarity and Confusion

October 25, 2017

Writing about scientific research:

“A common mistake of beginners is the desire to understand everything completely right away. In real life understanding comes gradually, as one becomes accustomed to the new ideas. One of the difficulties of scientific research is that it is impossible to make progress without clear understanding, yet this understanding can come only from the work itself; every completed piece of research represents a victory over this contradiction.” – A B Migdal (Russian physicist, contemporary of Lev Landau)

I think this applies to other areas as well.