The importance of listening

This blog has an accompanying audio description, where I read it in full.

There’s a time for talking and a time for listening, but we don’t always find the right balance. We have to get better at listening in a world that favours people who talk.

Trees coloured with autumn leaves in Saltaire, Yorkshire
Saltaire, Yorkshire

We live in a society that is biased in favour of vocal people. A society that rates proposals more highly when they are formulated by those who speak loudly and confidently and frequently express themselves. As a consequence, those people play a prominent role in the group process. I don’t think this always yields the best outcomes. It may be like an orchestra and the symphony it is playing: balance is essential. If only the loudest and largest instruments get a chance, many beautiful, but less boisterous ones can’t contribute. As a result there is little harmony, and the symphony does not sound remotely like it could and should.

Let’s think about what the bias in favour of vocal, dominant people means for team work. I guess it would not be a problem if we could be sure that proposals loudly voiced were the only ones needed for success. I am, however, unaware of any evidence that quiet people have fewer valuable opinions. Actually, their ideas may be better, since they spend more time observing the group dynamic, pondering the thoughts being put forward by people who dominate the conversation, and weighing them against their own. People who do most of the talking don’t have that same opportunity, since they are too busy ‘selling’ their concepts.

“Repeated negative experiences can even make group members feel they don’t belong, and prompt them to leave, which obviously is a huge waste of talent.”

And there is an even more pernicious problem. People who get less space for talking are more likely women and members of minority groups. They have often learnt to be quieter, because demanding attention does not work for them and is not always safe enough. There is a lot of research showing that women are more likely to be interrupted and that derogatory comments and other ‘micro-aggressions’ are more often aimed at team members from underrepresented groups. These experiences will literally shut people up and make them withdraw. It can eat away at their confidence and make them less likely to try speak up next time. Repeated negative experiences like these can even make group members feel they don’t belong, and prompt them to leave, which obviously is a huge waste of talent.

We end up in a bad way. Quiet people don’t seem to have valid contributions (if they did, they would speak, wouldn’t they?), and ‘different’ team members end up not contributing because it is such a struggle. In the end the louder, confident, voices drive the decisions.

Even though I have learnt to speak up, I still naturally have tendencies towards being quieter. I sometimes experience difficulty to make myself heard as a group member in meetings with dominant talkers. I find that I am slipping into thinking they are more clever, more leaderly, more whatever, while they command the room. I know for a fact that there have been many times in my career when my contribution to a team would have been valuable, but I did not get the chance to be heard.

“If we want to have a diverse and inclusive workplace in which creativity can blossom, we should enable everyone to contribute.”

As my career evolves it becomes easier. When you chair a meeting or are the boss, people are a lot less likely to interrupt or ignore you. And now I sometimes find myself getting enthusiastically carried away by my own ideas, not enabling others to use their voice. I am trying hard to avoid that behaviour and, instead, invite contributions from people I suspect or know have to summon greater reserves of energy to put their view across. I have found how powerful it can be, while chairing, to not always wait for people to spontaneously speak up. Instead, I will ask team members to take turns, or I will specifically ask some to share their opinion. I find that those colleagues are subsequently less likely to be interrupted by others. And it is not difficult for me as chair to gently interrupt someone who is themselves interrupting, and give the floor back to the original speaker.

“We need to practice the art of talking with intent and, more importantly, the art of listening with intent.”

If we want to have a diverse and inclusive workplace in which creativity can blossom, we should enable everyone to contribute. For that, we need to practice the art of talking with intent and, more importantly, the art of listening with intent. When we talk, we ought to give something valuable to the people we implicitly ask to be silent. And when it is our turn to be quiet, we need to do so attentively. We should truly listen because we want to learn, and talk back only to ask follow-up questions, or test ideas. Too often we are just waiting for a gap in someone else’s speech to resume our own story. In the meantime we are not really paying attention to what is being said. Many people, in their eagerness to get their point across, don’t wait for a pause and are quite comfortable interrupting. They probably underestimate how undermining that is to those they are cutting off, and how it harms the group process.

A good leader can make all the difference for team members who have a tendency to be quieter. I know as someone with that tendency myself. If we return to the analogy of the orchestra, perhaps a leader is the conductor, inviting musicians to play and at other times asking them to be silent and attentive, while always having the sound of the entire symphony in mind. If the leader doesn’t get it right, and one instrument dominates or a few loud ones do, the orchestra will sound like a boring solo performance, or a not so harmonious brass band. The musicians who do not get to play their part will eventually quit the orchestra.

Nowadays, when I am chairing or leading, I try to be focused on creating harmony in the entire group. I do that because I want to get the best out of any team I lead. I also do it because I know that quieter colleagues often have extremely valuable ideas. They deserve to be heard.

If you have any questions or would like to share your experiences with me, I’d like to listen to them. Please comment below or by getting in touch with me on Twitter at @SEBuitendijk and I’ll respond to questions in my next podcast.



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Simone Buitendijk

Simone Buitendijk

Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.