This past week, I muscled my way through an overly enthusiastic fever that, like a dog with a favorite chew toy, simply wouldn’t let go. Sometimes, it even invited its friend the barking cough over to play. As a result, besides never having been more bored and frustrated with “resting” in my entire life, our family’s digital thermometer packed a bag and took up temporary residence in my mouth.
The operation of this thermometer is fairly simple. Press the button, it flashes, stick it under your tongue, wait a minute or two, and then once it’s settled on a temperature, the thermometer beeps. Only I can’t hear the beep. I’ve confirmed with my girlfriend that it does in fact beep. Yet no matter how hard I listen, the tone is completely out of my range. Which isn’t something that comes as any great surprise, knowing my own history as I do, but still it managed to trigger a bit of PTSD in me.
I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday the dread of a much younger version of myself sitting on a cold metal chair, staring at a yellow cinder block wall, while either the school nurse or the speech therapist strapped a pair of bulky headphones to my ears and tightened them. Always a little too much. Too tight. Gripping my young head like a vice. Even then, I understood why, of course. They needed to seal out any external sounds.
The discomfort itself isn’t what I dreaded, though. It was what came next.
As I sat staring at that wall, I waited. Any second now, the nurse or therapist would start pushing buttons on something that in hindsight looked a bit like one of those stenography machines you see used in courtrooms. When she did, my only job was to stick my finger up in the air every time I heard a tone.
I always heard the first handful of tones. Maybe even more if the tester was feeling particularly generous that day and threw me a few extra low ones. But inevitably, as the tones climbed higher and higher, there would come those long gaps in time when I knew she must have pushed a button and I didn’t hear the sound.
Those gaps were what I dreaded. The Sound of Silence. And they didn’t only happen in that room when I was wired to that machine.
Thanks to terrible allergies and poorly angled Eustachian tubes, my ears were frequently stopped up with wax. A truly alarming amount of it. As a result, I regularly suffered from earaches, and spent many nights trying to sleep through the dull throb and whoosh of my own heartbeat on one side of my head. Inevitably, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I would make my way to my mother’s room and wake her up for the remedy of a hot compress and some greasy, foul smelling ear drops.
Yet while the earaches sucked — and they most definitely did suck — I didn’t mind that discomfort nearly as much as the hearing loss.
For nearly every year of grade school, I had to sit in the front row. Otherwise, I couldn’t hear everything the teacher was saying. At home, I was often guilty of either turning the TV volume up too high or sitting too close to it in order not to miss anything being said. With family members, I regularly played the part of an 80 year old man, forcing them to repeat themselves to the point of annoyance. When it came to the rest of the world, though, I was too embarrassed by my condition to ask people to repeat themselves. So instead, I turned my condition into a problem to solve.
Many days, the best I could hope for was to hear every other word.
To illustrate what that sounds like, imagine Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address with every other word missing from it.
From a semantic standpoint, it would be fairly useless. So then how did I get by with only this much information and still manage to bring home a nearly perfect report card every marking period? Answer: By practicing at a young age the series of hacks that constituted my own very crude, DIY version of “active listening” that looked something like this:
1) Paying Close Attention
Obviously, the best option for me was to hear as many words as possible in the first place. Doing this meant I had to learn how to “focus” my hearing. To filter out every other ambient sound in the room and only hear what a speaker was saying. What’s more, it meant pushing any extraneous or frivolous thoughts out of my head. Because thinking about what I planned to do after school that day or what happened in a TV show the night before meant eating up valuable mental resources that could be better used to process what I was hearing.
2) Advance Preparation
When it came to teachers, my love for reading was my friend. Besides the obvious option of reading anything a teacher wrote on the chalkboard (my eyes were 20/20), I got quite a bit of mileage out of simply reading at least one chapter ahead in most subjects. After all, if I’d already read the full text of The Gettysburg Address, then when the teacher read it out loud, I could simply fill in the blanks. This method was particularly helpful for times when a teacher was introducing new words, terminology, or proper names.
3) Reading Lips or Body Language
While probably not up to the level of somebody who is actually deaf, I quickly became a rather effective lip reader. This only helped, of course, if somebody was facing me, but when they were, it went a long way toward distinguishing whether somebody just said “first” or “thirst” or even “hearse.” Likewise with body language. A nod or shake of the head or a motion made with the hands (like a raised index finger while saying the word “first”) could often be what tipped the scales from one word to another.
4) Personal or Situational Context
While the specific words used by somebody are certainly a critical aspect of spoken language, broader context often filled in the gaps left by missing word content. For instance, if the speaker was a math teacher, then I could reasonably expect math-related words but not history- or art-related words. And if the speaker was my friend who mostly liked to talk about comic books, then I knew to keep an ear out for Superman, Spider-Man, and words like “arch-nemesis” and “cosmic rays.”
5) Logic or Guesswork
If every other method failed me, I have to admit that sometimes I simply guessed. Or “deduced” might be a better word, since there was usually somekind of context to work with, however flimsy. Of course, when I got it wrong, this might mean that I spent half an hour thinking for sure that a teacher told us Paul Revere yelled, “The bedclothes are coming!” instead of, “The Redcoats are coming!” But even if so, I could always go back and retroactively revise my assumptions or conclusions later, once I figured out what the incorrectly guessed word was.
These were all of the methods I used to get around asking somebody to repeat themselves. Especially teachers. After all, being terribly shy, the last thing I wanted was to draw the attention of a roomful of my classmates to myself. And yes, I realize that this personal limitation of not wanting to engage with others runs counter to 90% of what true “active” listening is all about. In fact, I’d say what I did is more accurately what’s referred to as “passive” listening. And yet, knowing how much work I put into the process behind the scenes, the word “passive” hardly seems to suffice.
Fortunately for me, by age 12 or so, I was able to get an eardrum procedure that cleared things up enough that I could hear maybe 3 out of 4 words. Then a few years after that, I outgrew most of my allergies and experienced a long overdue growth spurt that better aligned my Eustachian tubes. Next thing I knew, after more than a decade of hacking my way around the problem, my hearing was more or less normal.
That said, my hearing is not entirely normal, even now. I still don’t catch many of the sounds in the higher registers. So, for instance, I can’t hear that stupid thermometer beeping at me. Thankfully, human beings don’t tend to talk in high beeps, so this shortcoming doesn’t usually impact my ability to comprehend or communicate with actual people.
Now … if the Rebel Alliance was relying on me to have a conversation with R2-D2 … say to glean from the droid some critical piece of information that might prevent The Empire from enslaving half the galaxy … well … let’s just say maybe everybody would want to start getting used to hearing The Imperial March (the ominous song that plays every time Darth Vader walks into a room).
The fate of The Republic aside, whether or not what I was doing back then qualified as active listening (it didn’t), the coping methods I came up with out of necessity at a time when my hearing was terrible did actually refine my ability to listen more fully. These methods served me well when my hearing improved at just the point when high school started getting harder, as well as during college and throughout my career since then.
To this day, I give people my full attention when they’re talking, and quickly grow annoyed by others in the room who aren’t doing the same. I also get frustrated when it feels as if I’m being heard, but not listened to.
I will read and prepare as much as possible before I plan to have a conversation with somebody, and tend to keep myself well-informed in general for any conversations I might not be expecting. Always expect the unexpected.
I’m hyper-attentive to things like body language, and try hard to perceive and assign a broader context to what people are saying wherever possible. In other words, what are they saying without saying it, either indirectly or without words?
How well are you listening to your existing or prospective customers? As in truly listening… not just hearing the words they say. How much are you reading between the lines? For that matter, how well are you listening to your employees, co-workers, vendors, family, and friends? The world is more full of distractions and noise than ever. Sometimes it’s hard to hear more than every other word that gets thrown at us. But that’s exactly why it’s so critical to double down on being intentional about listening.
Because the every other word you miss may be the one that matters most.
If you need help hearing what your clients are telling you or getting your clients to hear you, then be sure to drop me a line here or connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s have conversation about it.