5 steps to poor listening: The ordinary professional's guide

Paul Glen offers a few thoughts on how to ensure poor client and peer relationships.

By Paul Glen

The development of non-technical, soft skills represents a significant choice in the career of IT professionals.  For those who choose to take the road most traveled, here are a few thoughts on how to ensure poor client and peer relationships, projects that focus on solutions to the wrong problems, and working cross-purposes with your team.

1. Just Keep Talking

Let's face it--the more you talk, the less time others get to talk.  This way, you completely avoid the issue of listening all together.  Why risk having to pretend you’re listening when you have the opportunity to completely prevent others from talking?

There’s also a particularly useful secondary effect of this recommendation.  The more often you do this, the less often others want to be around you.  Voila!  You have also reduced the frequency of situations where you might be forced to listen.

If you take only one useful tip you take away from this article, this one is it:  Flapping your gums will save your ears.

2. When you’re not talking, think about what you’re going to say next

On occasion, even the best talker among us either runs out of things to say or is rudely interrupted.  When this happens, be prepared to jump right in to step 2.  As soon as your mouth stops moving start thinking about how to resume talking.  It’s that simple.

Whether you’re trying to think of the wittiest thing anyone ever said or the most brilliant way to bring the conversation back to your ideas or issues, poor listeners often use this time to regroup.  Be grateful for the opportunity.  Remember, poor listeners feel that talking is a big chance to look smart, important, caring or charming.  When not talking, prepare your next words.

You may want to consider bobbing your head up and down a few times while you’re thinking.  If you’re not careful, the speaker will notice that you’re not listening, and will ask you a question for which you are unprepared.  Then you will be stuck stammering some sort of answer which won’t position you well to continue your speaking.  (The rude solution to this, of course, is to say something condescending like "clearly, you don’t understand," and then talk about whatever you were thinking about.  It’s inelegant, but it usually makes others stop talking.) Anyway, when you talk again, it should be on your terms.

3. Interrupt Frequently

Once you’ve figured out what you want to say next, then you’re ready for step 3, interruption.  Interruption takes two major forms: finishing the speaker’s sentence and just doing it.  Finishing the speaker’s sentence is particularly effective since it brings closure to their thought and demonstrates that you understand it completely.

Just starting to talk is usually best done when the speaker is forced to take a breath.  This way, you are not both talking at the same time, which becomes a nasty battle of the talking wills.  Remember, others want to talk as much as you do.  If you give them a chance, they'll just keep talking forever.

4. Look Away

Whether you are talking or not, you always have one tool at your disposal, avoiding eye contact.  This prevents the speaker from getting non-verbal feedback indicating that you’re not listening.  Some like to just stare, unfocused into space.  I personally find this difficult to pull off.  Some poor listeners prefer to silently hunt the room for more important or attractive people.  There’s always someone better to talk.  If you must look at the speaker, focus on some odd aspect of their appearance, like a piece of spinach between teeth.

5. Never ever, ask clarifying questions

Finally, when you do get the chance to talk, don’t ask questions that help clarify the comments of other speakers.  Doing so would require that you listened to what was said in the first place.  It also seals the transfer of information by confirming what you heard.  Additionally, questions invite others to talk, ensuring that you’re spending too much time listening.

If you consistently follow these guidelines, you will secure your position as an ordinary IT professional.  Good Luck.

Paul Glen is the author of the award-winning book "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2003) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps IT management solve people problems. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to www.c2-consulting.com. He can be reached at info@c2-consulting.com.