4.3 Listening For Highlights

Understanding someone means boiling down their messages to their essence — or what TalkWorks calls a ‘highlight’. An essential Teller skill is being able to distil the underlying messages and feelings from people’s words. The job could well be called ‘processing for meaning’.

a. Steps towards understanding

The process of moving towards understanding looks something like this. First you tune-in visibly, in order to prepare yourself to listen. Then you listen actively and make every effort to do so with an open mind. This keeps you ‘clean’, that is, it keeps you from contaminating what the Explainer/Teller is saying. Then you process what you hear in order to identify the Explainer/Tellers' highlights, that is, the main points they are making. All at the service of understanding.

Of course, in reality this is not a laborious, drawn-out process. This chain of events often takes place instantly. But that's the problem. If you have developed some bad listening and processing habits over time - and most of us have - it’s helpful to slow down a bit in order to re-learn this listening and processing sequence. Once relearned, you can put it back in habitual mode, as it were. You will communicate instinctively, but more effectively.

b. Processing what you hear

Something happens between listening and responding. In some way, you process what you hear. The quality of your response to the Explainer/Teller depends on the quality of that processing. We have already outlined different kinds of flawed listening and the flawed processing that goes with them. For instance, judgmental listening involves processing focused on determining the ‘rightness’, or the ‘wrongness’ of what the Explainer/Teller is saying. Of course, this means ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as defined by the Understander.

For instance, Miranda is talking to Jeremy about what her doctor said about possible medicinal uses of marijuana. Since Jeremy is totally opposed to all illegal drugs, he starts listening judgmentally. Everything that Miranda says is either right or wrong. In this case, mostly wrong. By doing this, he totally misses the point she is trying to make.

There is a form of processing that serves the purpose of dialogue much more effectively. Processing is a form of inquiry that requires reflection. Elinor and Gerard highlight the importance of these processes for dialogue.

"Inquiry is about asking questions and holding an attitude of curiosity, opening the door for new insights. Reflection is about holding the door open long enough for new perceptions to emerge."

Inquiry is a search for meaning, "What are the key things this person is saying? What does my conversational partner mean to say?" Without the conversational patience implied in reflection, the ‘door’ closes too quickly and the meaning may be missed.

c. Identifying highlights

Understanders who have mastered the art of active, open-minded listening are able to identify highlights —key points the Explainer/Teller is trying to get across. You tune-in, visibly, in order to listen. You listen in the spirit of inquiry and reflection, in order to identify the highlights of what the other person is saying.

A highlight is an idea, just a few words, perhaps a sentence or two - that captures the essence or main points of what the person in the Explainer/Teller role has been saying. A highlight, uncontaminated by your own judgments or point of view, is your best shot at understanding what the Explainer/Teller means. The question you need to ask yourself that gets at the Explainer/Teller's highlights is: "What are the key things this person is trying to get across to me?"

Yves, an unmarried bartender, is talking with Bill, one of his ‘regulars’. The general topic is career. Bill has been talking about what he likes and does not like about his present job.

During the conversation, Yves, 32, says a few words about his own career aspirations: "I've been thinking a lot recently about my job. Since I'm not married, the main thing in my life is my job. Currently it's this job. It's not that I don't like it. I do. But I've got an itch to do something better. You know, something that'll make me feel better about myself … No, that's not it. I don't feel bad about myself. But I'd like to be using more of myself, more of my talents, whatever they are. Maybe something that makes me think I'm contributing more. I'm not sure to what. But just contributing more."

There are obviously some highlights here. What are they? What's important to Yves? What are the main points he's trying to communicate? How does he feel about what he's saying? These are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself to get at Yves's highlights. For instance, you might say to yourself, "Yves is saying that he has talents he's not using in this job. In some way it's a waste." What other highlights are there?

The term highlight is broader than headline. Highlights include key points the Explainer/Teller makes in the ‘paragraph’ that follows a headline. Yves's headline is: "I've been thinking a lot recently about my job." This gives focus to what he is about to say. But, in the ensuing paragraph, he touches on a number of different points.

A good way to ‘process’ what you hear is to put yourself in the other person's shoes and try to see what the world looks like from his, or her, perspective. If you were in Yves shoes, what might you be thinking and feeling? You might say to yourself, "Here's a guy that wants more from a job than he's currently getting. He feels he has talent, but he's using only a bit of it. He's dissatisfied, not so much with the job he has, but with the fact that he's not making some kind of contribution to society, though I'm not sure what kind of ‘contribution’ he's talking about." Seeing things from Yves's perspective helps you identify highlights.

You can use the frameworks outlined elsewhere - SAME for stories, MRI for messages, PRE for points of view, and CRITIC for cases - to help yourself identify possible highlights.

For instance, Gina, a correctional officer in a low-security, campus-like correctional facility, is making a case for more flexible visiting hours. She is an excellent officer, so you are already tuned into her credibility. Highlights can be found in the other CRITIC categories.

Gina says, "A policy of more flexible visiting hours is more in keeping with the nature of this place. It does not detract at all from the principal form of punishment, that is, incarceration. It does mean more work for us, but not that much. And I think that most of us see working here as relatively easy duty. Most of us wouldn't mind a little inconvenience. And it’s more compassionate for the relatives of our inmates. Many of them can't get here during our restricted visiting hours without undue hardship."

As you process what Gina is saying, it becomes clear that one important highlight is a balance between the interests of the prisoners and the interests of the facility's staff, two of CRITIC's categories.

Another example: Ernest is a patient recovering from surgery in a hospital. He is very dissatisfied with the post-operative care he has been receiving. He tells the doctor in charge of the post-operative team looking after him that he is going to leave the hospital. The doctor challenges Ernest's decision to leave (Message). Ernesto goes on to list his complaints; indifferent staff, long delays in receiving his pain medication, cold food, little interchange with the members of the team who come in to do routine procedures, and no straight feedback on his condition from the doctor (the Reasons for his message).

The doctor replies by saying, "The hospital is the best place for us to monitor your condition and to make sure that no post-operative infection, or other complication, arises."

His reply focuses on his own agenda, not Ernest's concerns. He completely ignores the highlights in what his patient has said, that is, the reasons why he has decided to discharge himself. Ernest discharges himself against medical advice, pays for nursing care at home, and writes scathing letters to the hospital administration and to the hospital association.

d. Processing nonverbal modifiers

As you listen, you process not just words but also the nonverbal ‘modifiers’ that go along with them. Let’s look at an example:

Mariah, who has just finished secondary school, is talking about college. She has signed up at a local college in town. Therefore, she'll live at home and be a day student. Family finances are tight, so her choices are few. She will probably have to get a part-time job to help with expenses and spending money.

She’s talking to Edna, the mother of one of her friends who’ll be attending a university in another city. Edna has been congratulating Mariah on doing so well at her ‘A’ levels, and talks about the excitement of going to college.

At one point in the conversation Mariah says, "Yeah, it will be great to get the freedom that goes with college. I can plot my own life. Choose my own subjects. Organise my own schedule to a degree. Nothing like high school. And, as someone told me the other day, it's up to me. I can get as good an education as I want without having to go away.”

As Mariah talks, her voice is flat, she speaks more slowly than usual, and she lacks animation. This, in a young woman who is usually bright and vivacious. Edna's processing takes note of this. She says to herself such things as "Her words are all about advantages, but the way she's saying it takes it all back. She sounds disappointed, as if she's pushing herself to be appreciative." Mariah's nonverbal behaviour modifies her verbal behaviour in important ways. In fact, the real message lies there.

e. Identifying critical emotional states

Don't overlook feelings, emotions, and other mental states such as puzzlement and conviction. They, too, can be an important part of a highlight or highlights in themselves. A few examples:

Telling a story: Harry, your neighbour, is talking with you about a problem he is having with a local department store. He is still angry about the way he was treated by the customer service department. His anger is a central issue. It’s likely to fuel whatever further action he might take.

Delivering a message: Leah, a friend, is telling you about her decision to change jobs. She is elated by her decision because she will be able to spend more time with her children. Her elation is a critical factor, especially in view of the fact that she took a pay cut in her new job.

Sharing a point of view: Emma, who lives near you, is sharing her opinion about noise in the neighbourhood. She is puzzled why others in the neighbourhood don't share her point of view on noise pollution. Her consternation is an important part of her communication. She's asking herself, "Who's out of sync?"

Making a case: Christopher, a friend of yours, who is a manager in a local software company, is discussing with you how people get promoted in various companies. He is passionate about his desire to get his company to base both pay and promotion on performance. His conviction probably gives some indication of his credibility and is an important factor in the case he's presenting.

Unnamed emotions and feelings: Some of your conversational partners will simply express their emotions without naming them. When you're talking with Cindy, it's clear that she's sad, though she does not say so. Jonathan, on the other hand, usually names his emotions: "I'm really annoyed by the poor reception I'm getting on my new phone." At any rate, since emotions are often drivers of behaviour, they are an important part of the communication package.

Sometimes your conversational partners express emotions, but it’s not clear what is causing them. Then processing involves your saying to yourself things like, "I can see that he's anxious, but it's not clear why." Instead of making assumptions, you can ask what's going on if you think it appropriate to do so.

f. Using context to process

People rightfully complain when others take their remarks ‘out of context’. This usually means that someone has taken one or two remarks from a longer set of, often interrelated, remarks. These stripped-down remarks take on a new meaning, sometimes the opposite of the meaning they had in context. For example, Trudy listens to Nathan discuss his fantasies about travel. In relating what he said to Nora, Nathan’s girlfriend, she fails to mention that these are only fantasies. Nora feels let down because she has not been included in Nathan's travel plans.

Effective Explainer/Tellers provide the background needed to understand the points they are making and effective Understanders use this background to get a clear picture of what the Explainer/Teller is trying to convey. But there are other kinds of context, besides the context provided by the Explainer/Teller, that are usually not spelled out but which greatly help to understand the Explainer/Teller's remarks.

Taking what we already know into account:

Context includes things we already know about Explainer/Tellers and their circumstances that help us understand what they are saying more fully. These broader contextual realities help ‘frame’" the conversation more completely.

Recall Edna who listened to and processed Mariah's nonverbal behaviour as the young woman talked about going to college. Edna also does what good Understanders do, that is, she processes what Mariah is saying through a wider context. She says to herself, at least implicitly, such things as, "Financial restraints mean that she can't go away to school like her friends. And the local college is decent enough, but not as good or as exciting as the state university. And, although her home life is quite decent, she probably wants to get out on her own like the other kids." See listens to Mariah through this wider context, but she is careful not to fall into the assumption-making trap.

Since we listen faster than Explainer/Tellers speak, there is time left over for processing. There is time for reflection. That's why it's so important to clear out the ‘noise’ in your head so that processing can be as objective as possible. If you are distracted, if there is a lot of noise in your head, you won't capture the Explainer/Teller's highlights. Or you will contaminate them. Then, inevitably, your responses will be flawed.

Let’s look at some examples:

Your friend, Kyle, tells you that he has to cancel out of a trip you and he had planned together. He tells you that one of his cousins is ‘in trouble’ and that he wants to go see her. He doesn't elaborate and you don't think that you should ask a lot of questions.

You know from previous experience that Kyle is a solid, dependable friend. He doesn't easily make excuses. You process what he has to say in this broader context. The context helps you understand him. You listened to what Kyle had to say through the context of his dependability.

Now, suppose it was your friend, Wally, who cancelled the trip at the last minute. Wally, in your experience, has a history of changing his mind at the last minute and making excuses. This annoying pattern of behaviour makes you think twice about what he is saying. Perhaps the time has come to challenge his behaviour.

Here’s another example to think about:

Your cousin, Patrick, calls you and asks for an aunt's phone number. You wonder why he wants the number of someone he hasn't talked to for years. You ask him, but he sounds a bit evasive to you. After you hang up, you wonder what's going on.

Contextual information is missing. Patrick has had a gambling problem for a number of years. You thought that he had reformed his ways. He says he has. But the aunt in question has inherited some money recently. You wonder whether there is any connection. You call her and find out that he has asked her for a ‘loan’. Since you were instrumental in getting him to forego his gambling ways, you call him and ask, "What's going on?" You find out that he has fallen into his old ways and is looking for money to pay off a gambling debt.

In this case, you didn't know contextual facts, but you suspected that there were some and made an effort to find out.

Of course, despite this example, searching for relevant context does not mean that you have to become a detective, digging up dirt behind people's backs.

Consider this example:

Your son, Mark, is a secondary school student. You are talking about him with his form teacher, who refers to Mark’s ‘unacceptable’ behaviour in Spanish class. You don't doubt what she's saying, but since Mark’s not generally a trouble-maker, you search for some bit of context, asking, "What's that class like in general?" She says that the new, somewhat naïve, teacher is having all sorts of problems. The students have played practical jokes on him and your son's behaviour is actually relatively mild in comparison with the average. This is something that you can factor in when talking with him about that class.

Here are two examples, where processing doesn’t take the broader context into account:

Zoe is criticising her daughter, Sybil, for coming in past her curfew time. Sybil tries to explain her point of view, but receives a poor hearing. Zoe knows that exams are over and that this is the last week of her senior year in secondary school. She also knows that the parents of Sybil's friends are ordinarily more lenient than she is, and even more lenient because school is coming to an end. Zoe, with her steadfast "what is right is right" attitude, factors none of this into the conversation with her daughter and lectures her about coming home on time.

This is an example of someone knowing context but for whatever reason, failing to take it into account. If Zoe’s mum had paused for thought, she might have given her daughter a better hearing.

A final example:

Lars, a manager, is talking with Abby, a member of staff who reports directly to him, about changes she wants in her vacation schedule. He tells her that the days she has chosen won't work out. But Lars also knows that the company's policy on vacations is strict. Those who fail to take vacation time within the calendar year lose it. Even worse, Lars fails to factor in the fact that Abby deferred her vacation because he needed her for a new project.

Clearly, Lars was not taking the bigger context into account at all when he should have.

The overall point here is this: Enrich your understanding of what the Explainer/Teller is saying by placing it in a context that is appropriately broad. Far from distracting yourself from the story, message, point of view, or case being presented, you can use context to understand the Explainer/Teller's meaning more fully.

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