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.

The Unhealthy Preoccupation With Success

September 19, 2018

Starting from complex bid writing in large organisations (some were successful, others not), I’ve always had an interest in how you can best learn from ‘failure’. You can hold post-mortems of projects and bids but these are often not as helpful as you may hope (see here).

It’s interesting to read how others handle this success/failure split. For example, the England football team did pretty well in the recent World Cup in Russia. Pippa Grange was the team psychologist and there’s an interesting article on her approach and views here, including: 

Grange has no fear of failure either. She has written: “I’d like to turn this unhealthy preoccupation with success on its head and put it on the record that I think failure is really useful. For without failure we cannot progress longer, higher or faster. It’s a funny paradox – our successes are achieved through trying, and trying most often ends in failure. Every day in our general lives and our sporting lives we will win some and lose some; it’s just part of the way life should be. It could be missing out on a promotion, being pipped at the line in a running race or bombing out in an exam – it doesn’t matter – the important lesson is to learn from our failures, reassess, rethink, move forward (sometimes in a different direction) and keep those dreams and goals alive.”

Good summary: reassess, rethink and move forward (sometimes in a different direction). I like the emphasis on doing things a bit differently next time not just rehashing what you’ve done and hope it’ll be better next time (the common default).

Failures can of course shock and scar and have the effect of encouraging you to avoid similar situations (fight or flight). This will get in the way of ‘reassess, rethink and move forward’, at least in a balanced manner. One interesting suggestion to overcome this is to use humour:

One way to know you’ve reached a healthy place is your sense of humor. It might take a few days, but eventually you’ll see some comedy in what happened. When friends tell stories of their mistakes it makes you laugh, right? Well when you can laugh at your own mistakes you know you’ve accepted it and no longer judge yourself on the basis of one single event. Reaching this kind of perspective is very important in avoiding future mistakes. Humor loosens up your psychology and prevents you from obsessing about the past. It’s easy to make new mistakes by spending too much energy protecting against the previous ones. Remember the saying “a man fears the tiger that bit him last, instead of the tiger that will bite him next”.

I can see that this might work although I’ve never tried it myself. The article also gives variety of tips on how you can learn from mistakes.

Finally, for perspective, here’s a radical counter-viewpoint:

Another common misconception: you need to learn from your mistakes. What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don’t know what you should do next.

Contrast that with learning from your successes. Success gives you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked – and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better.


Success is the experience that actually counts.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s exactly how nature works. Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.

The only comment I’d add is that sometimes it’s hard to learn from successes, just as it is from failures. Sometimes you can be successful simply through luck but even then I guess you can always argue that you can make your own luck (see here)!

For context and motivation on this topic, please see my previous post.

On Blogging Today

May 20, 2018

From the blog of Mark Bernstein, Chief Scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of the powerful note taking app Tinderbox, on the evolution of blogs:

“Weblogs promoted conversation. I warned (at Blogtalk Downunder) that comments kill weblogs, and I was right. Facebook and Twitter are platforms for comments that dispense with the weblog; they give us all the disadvantages and keep all the profit.”

A while ago he wrote 10 Tips on Writing the Living Web which is still worth reading today.

The Art and Science of Habits

November 13, 2017

I came across an interesting video (above, 24 mins) by James Clear on his four stage approach to establishing good habits. In it he explains each step, gives examples and adds a tip or two for how to carry it out in practice. He also alludes to scientific studies that back up the claims made.

I was particularly interested in this as I was attempting to embed some new habits myself. I started in a flurry but now realise I’ve not got as far as I hoped so it’s a good time to revisit the process to figure out what I may have been doing wrong.

Here’s the four stages, plus my own observations (additional points are made in various other articles on his web site):

1. Noticing The Habit
Point: It’s best to have a concrete plan to address the habit rather than a vague intention.

“Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.”

Tip: Do a failure pre-mortem – imagine failing and try to think why it happened (and how you’d feel). This helps mature the plan as you can build these insights into it (it should provide extra motivation as well of course).

Recently I decided to join a local health club, partly as I thought it would be good for me and partly because they had an attractive deal (to try to get new members in). I suffer from insomnia and I thought that being fitter might help me get better sleep (this would be an extra perk, quite a strong motivator actually).

Like many others, it all started out well. How to use the equipment was explained and a personal fitness plan agreed (suitable for my age etc). The first few sessions, although it was certainly at a beginner’s level, were quite revealing – I was soaked in sweat in just after 30 mins. I’m not over-weight but I’m obviously not fit.

However after a few nights of really bad sleep, one morning I wasn’t in the mood for the fitness club so I skipped the planned session. And there the rot began, if I skipped once, what would skipping twice matter and so on…

I’m not sure how to get over this one (as there is a physical reason involved not just procrastination) but I have the suspicion that if I had dragged myself there I would have felt better in the end. Partly as I’d be a tiny bit fitter anyway plus building up confidence in overcoming barriers and not giving in to them. See also Point 4 below.

I wouldn’t say I ever looked forward to the sessions but I did feel really good afterwards so somehow I need to focus on the final feeling not the start. I’m sure that when the habit was established I’d quite like going.

2. Wanting The New Habit
Point: Review Your Surroundings.
Tip: The physical environment can affect habit formation in a big way e.g. being surrounded by distractions. Design your environment to encourage good habits.

My own office (I work at home) is rather disorganised with books and items all over the place. I tell myself that this is OK as I’m a creative type but underneath there’s a feeling that I just lack a bit of discipline.

As a immediate way out of this (tidying up my office will take a while and would of course be another distraction) I decided to work in the local library. This was quite good. For instance, reading a book (on business writing) took just a day, including notes. I was quite shocked at the progress I’d made and it made me realise just how time-sapping distractions in my office can be.

3. Doing The New Habit
Point: Just Do It. Getting started is often the problem…
Tip: Use the Two Minute Rule i.e. focus energy and enthusiasm on the start not the finish (once got going, momentum will often carry the activity on naturally).

I’ve found this to be nearly always true. It’s quite strange, as once started things often get quite motivating and it’s hard to think why there was a barrier in the first place. In a way you have to trick yourself (but cleverly).

The trouble is the two-minute rule also works for distractions. I’ll just check this (train times for example) and then start my article afterwards and then one hour later I’m still on the web (anything else interesting going on in London when I visit etc). So perhaps this is more a point of focus, simply schedule all fun, light stuff for after the bulk of the day (which is itself a habit).

4. Liking The New Habit
Point: Think of ways to bring long term advantages into the present moment. Quote from Seth Godin: ‘the best way to change long term behaviour is short term feedback’.
Tip: use the Seinfeld Strategy and focus on not breaking the chain (details of this approach are here) or if you do, get back on track quickly.

I thought I could do this via a digital diary but this didn’t really work (it got lost in all the other stuff I was writing about). I think the idea of having a real calendar stuck on a cork-board in my office would be far more effective (maybe even on the fridge as well).

Time for another go…


Writing Is Writing

November 11, 2017

Wandering in a bookshop today, I browsed a recently published book on quotes and advice on writing by various authors.

Opening the book, this was the first quote I saw:

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” – E L Doctorow

This really hit home as it’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last two months, avoiding ‘writing’!

Point taken, back to the grind.