Melissa was beginning to wonder if Ted was actually paying attention. She was so excited about her new promotion, and yet he seemed indifferent. She continued with her story.
“My boss said I was a great team player, and I was especially good at motivating people to get involved. He announced my promotion at a staff meeting, and I could see Janie turning green with envy. She has been sucking up for months trying to get that promotion. Everyone sees right through her. You met her at the company Christmas party three months ago, remember?”
Unfortunately, Ted had already checked out of the conversation and was running through the list of things he had to get done at the office the next day. He suddenly sensed the awkward silence and finally spoke. “That is so great, honey. I am really proud. You have worked so hard for this promotion, and you certainly deserve it.”
“Have you even been listening to me?” Melissa was visibly annoyed.
“Of course I have.”
“So what I did I just say?”
“You said you got a promotion. I heard you. I am listening!”
“That’s not all I said! I was talking about Janie being jealous. You weren’t even paying attention.”
Ted was starting to get annoyed himself. “I got the gist of it. You were talking about your promotion, right? Why do you have to get hung up on the little details? Just cut to the chase and give me the bottom line.”
“You know what? Just forget it. It’s obviously not important enough to you for you to listen.” Melissa stormed out of the room thinking, What a typical guy! He never listens!
Ted was left in the room thinking, What a typical woman. Blah blah blah blah! Why can’t she justget to the point?
Frequent scenarios like this feed the gender stereotypes that women are great listeners and men tune you out. In the real-life situation above, as it turns out, they both stink at listening. Melissa is an Expressive, and Ted is a Driver. Amiables and Analyticals appear to be better listeners because they don’t talk as much or interrupt as much as Drivers and Expressives. Drivers and Expressives tend to interrupt, interject, or talk over the top of you. Even if they have learned to not do those things, they usually aren’t listening-they’re just waiting to talk.
When you are talking to Drivers like Ted, they might be thinking, Does your train of thought have a caboose? Drivers do not like to engage in long, drawn-out stories. Expressives are also impatient listeners because they want their turn. They love stories, but they prefer to be the narrators. Amiables listen well and don’t want to be rude by interrupting or correcting people. They just want everyone to get along. Analyticals also listen well, but they would prefer not to be engaged in long conversations if they have tasks that need to be done.
Men have been raked over the coals on these gender stereotypes. You see it in movies, commercials, and sitcoms. You hear about it in everyday conversations. Studies continue to emerge telling us why men have problems listening. Of course, they start with the premise that men don’t listen.
When you are arguing with a fool, make sure he isn’t doing the same thing.
One study asserts that men listen primarily with the left side of the brain and women listen with both sides. It goes on to state that the right side of the brain attaches emotional meaning to words and that may be why women listen better (again, making the assumption that women actually do listen better) and why men tune out (making the assumption that all men tune women out). But this line of thinking has one very big problem: Not all men have a problem listening. Some experts would assert that these men are the exception, but the exceptions are far too common to ignore.
Men are often portrayed as insensitive jerks who don’t listen to the needs of their sweet, tender, sensitive, emotional wives or girlfriends. Men just tune them out. Yes, some men don’t listen well, but let’s take a reality check: Some women don’t listen too well either. This is much more of a social style and skill development issue than a gender issue.
Men Want to Solve Problems, Women Want to Be Heard
Let’s look at another myth that is intertwined with the listening myth. The myth states that all men want to fix your problems when you talk to them, and women just want to be heard.
When you share something with Drivers or Expressives, their natural response is to give you advice, tell you what to do, and solve the problem. This is true whether the Driver or Expressive is a male or a female. How many times have you heard someone complain about a mother-in-law always giving unwanted advice or a female friend who won’t just listen but insists on trying to solve the problem? It happens all the time. This isn’t a gender issue, it’s a social-style issue. Analyticals and Amiables are better about not pushing their thoughts and opinions on others. Drivers and Expressives need to work on it.
The myth: Men want to fix everything and solve your problems when you talk to them, and women just want to be heard.
The truth: Drivers and Expressives tend to want to give you their advice and opinions. Analyticals and Amiables are better at just listening to you.
In my survey, I asked people to respond to this true or false statement: “I am often accused of being a poor listener.” More men than women said they were accused of being poor listeners. Once again, if we left the research at that, we could confirm that women are better listeners than men. Instead, we have to dig deeper into social style to discover the real truth.
Drivers and Expressives do not listen as well as Amiables and Analyticals. More Drivers and Expressives filled out the survey than Amiables or Analyticals. Additionally, of those Drivers and Expressives, men outnumbered women. The respondents who said they had difficulty listening were mostly Drivers and Expressives. Here is an interesting piece of data that came out of the survey: The respondents who said they were not poor listeners but emerged as Drivers or Expressives were all over the age of 50. Interesting. Is it possible that as people mature and learn better skills, they can become better listeners even if it doesn’t come naturally for them? I think so.
A Seasoned Listener
Norm was 88 years old when I sat down with him. He had kind eyes and a warm smile. He chose his words carefully, and when it was my turn to talk, he listened intently, leaned forward, and nodded his head. He asked questions and showed a high level of interest in what I was saying. He never interrupted me once and made me feel as if what I had to say was incredibly important. By all accounts this man was an outstanding listener. Surely he could not have been a Driver or an Expressive. But when I asked him a series of questions to determine his social style, I discovered he was indeed a Driver. What accounted for his great listening skills? According to Norm himself, a learned skill was the difference.
“You should have seen me as young man. I had the world by the tail-or so I thought. I knew it all, and I let everyone around me know that I knew it all. I could argue with the best of ’em. My wife would tell you I had the attention span of a gnat. Didn’t listen to a word she said. It took years and years of learning the hard way how to be a good listener.”
So I asked Norm if he thought people could change social styles. “Maybe you were a Driver when you were younger and now you’re an Amiable.” He held the same belief on this as I did.
“I’m still the same guy inside when it comes to my natural instinct. I still feel that urge to correct people or jump in while they are talking. I’ve just learned not to. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes. I’ve learned through the years that other people have a lot to teach me, but I can’t learn much while I’m talking. I need to be listening. And listening isn’t just waiting to talk-it’s trying to understand what someone else is attempting to communicate.”
People who know little, say much. People who know much, say little.
What a wise man. Norm hit on my theory of social style. You are born with a distinct social style, and you will always have it. If you are born a Driver, you will die a Driver. But as you journey through life, you can choose to take on the positive traits of all four social styles to give yourself a better balance. You can choose behaviors that complement your strengths and cease behaviors that magnify your weaknesses. Your social style defines your natural tendencies, but it doesn’t control your every behavior-your free choice does.
Good News, Bad News
I talked with Celia about her listening skills. Celia is a high-level executive with 15 subordinates. The organization Celia works for conducts 360-degree evaluations. This means a variety of people provide input and feedback about the effectiveness of the managers and employees. Celia’s boss fills out an evaluation form, and so do her employees, coworkers, vendors, and clients. This is a positive and constructive way to get feedback, and Celia actually appreciates it. She confided in me that she consistently gets constructive criticism about her listening skills.
“I am always being told that I don’t listen very well. It’s hard to admit, but I guess I don’t. I tend to get excited and interject when people are talking. Or if I think people are wrong, I don’t let them finish before I correct them. I find myself finishing people’s sentences if they are taking too long. It’s hard to focus sometimes too. I find myself thinking about all of the things I need to get done, and I tend to tune people out, especially if they are too chatty. I get bored with conversations really easily and find myself wishing I were doing something else. What’s wrong with me? Women are supposed to be great listeners.”
I assured Celia that nothing was wrong with her and that the idea that women were great listeners was simply a misguided gender stereotypes. I asked her a series of questions and discovered that Celia was a Driver, just like Norm. I explained to her what this meant and went over some of her natural tendencies. We talked about her busy mind and drive to get tasks done and her reluctance to simply chat with people. I explained that her social style was prone to tune out idle chatter and focus on tasks that need to be done. She was amazed at how on target this was with her tendencies.
After discussing how normal she was and assuring her that nothing was wrong with her, I broke the tough news. Her social style was no excuse for not improving her listening skills. Just because you have a natural tendency toward something doesn’t mean you can’t control it. That is the beauty of free choice and responsibility. When Celia became aware of her social style, she had an obligation to improve in an area that was affecting her relationships. We spent some time discussing some ways she could do just that.
What Does This Mean for You?
If you re an Expressive, your natural inclination is to dominate conversations instead of actively listening. When you are in conflict with people you are closest to, you might interrupt, interject, and overwhelm. If you want to improve any of your relationships, the first thing you need to do is listen! Let me give you an example of a typical Expressive in a conversation. We’ll call him John.
Steve: “Hey, John, how’s it going?”
John: “Great, bud-how are you?”
Steve: “Couldn’t be better. We just got back from Hawaii, and it was fantastic!”
John: “I love Hawaii. We went last year and had a blast. We took a helicopter tour, and my wife about had a heart attack!”
Steve: “Is that so?”
John: “Yeah, it was insane! We came down this one hill, and I could swear we were going to hit the ground. The pilot was a maniac. It was quite the adrenaline rush. We’re going back to Hawaii next year. My sister owns a condo there, so we can use it anytime we want.”
The conversation would proceed with John sharing about John as long as Steve had the patience to listen (which would depend on Steve’s social style). Expressives often take the ball and run with it, not even realizing they took over someone’s story or conversation. Once you become aware of your tendency to do this, you will catch yourself and hopefully correct it.
If you’re an Expressive, learn to hold your tongue. Let people tell their story. Ask questions. Get involved with their interest. Then, when they are all done, you can share your story. If you’re in a personal or professional relationship with an Expressive, you need to know that Expressives love to talk, regardless of their gender. They like to talk about themselves and their interests, and they love to joke around a lot. They can get volatile and loud in conflict, but they do like to talk about their relational issues and work through them. If you’re dealing with a male, don’t simply assume he would rather go into his cave and not talk at all.
If you’re a Driver, your natural inclination is to be right and to correct everyone. You probably don’t mind debating issues. This annoys people. You may be an impatient listener, like the Expressive. When people are talking, you are likely to be thinking about what you want to say or the next point of your argument. Let your Amiable and Analytical counterparts talk more. More importantly, learn how to say, “I could be wrong.” I know that’s scary when you’re thinking, But what ifI’m not wrong?I’m usually right! Well, it’s better to say you could be wrong and save face than to insist you are right and have your mistake shoved in your face. Besides, even if you are right, it bugs people that you rarely ever admit that you could be wrong.
If you’re in a relationship with a Driver, you need to know that even though Drivers are usually extroverts, they tend to focus on tasks more than relationships. That means when they are working on a task, they would rather not be bothered with idle conversation. Get to your point and provide a Driver with the bottom line as quickly as possible so he or she can get back to work.
If you’re an Amiable, you likely don’t need to share your opinion, especially if you think it might offend others. So while you want to talk about your relationship issues and work them out, you tend to suck it up and let people walk all over you at times to save relationships. Try to speak your mind more and let people know how you really feel about things. Don’t be afraid to tell Drivers or Expressives that they are talking too much and that you would like them to listen to your opinion.
It takes two to speak the truth-one to speak and another to hear.
– Henry David Thoreau
When you relate with Amiables, gently coax them to share their thoughts and opinions. They actually do want to talk about their relationship issues but not with someone who will dominate the conversation or overwhelm them with demonstrative behavior. Lower your voice and speak calmly with Amiables. Let them know they can safely share their feelings. Show courtesy, respect, and kindness as you listen, and they will usually open up to you.
If you re an Analytical, you also tend to avoid conflict by letting Drivers and Expressives dominate conversations. You might want to retreat into a cave and analyze things thoroughly before talking about them. By then, no one it is interested anymore. Try to understand that some people (Drivers and Expressives) want to address issues much quicker and solve them. So try to push yourself a little outside your comfort zone and openly talk about what is going on with you.
If you’re in a relationship with an Analytical, try to understand that too many relationship issues will overwhelm Analyticals (this is true with Drivers as well). Approach Analyticals logically and methodically to deal with issues. If you are overly emotional, you will just drive them away, and they will tune you out (regardless of whether they are male or female). Analyticals, like Drivers, work logically, not emotionally (unlike Expressives and Amiables). Try to harness your emotions when having conversations with Analyticals, and you will get them to talk and open up more as well as actively listen.
You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.
– M. Scott Peck
I mentioned early that Amiables and Analyticals can often appear to be better listeners because they don’t talk as much or interrupt as much as Drivers or Expressives. Well, just for the record, being silent while someone is talking does not necessarily mean you are listening. If you are clamming up to avoid conflict or thinking about other things while you act like you’re listening, you still need to work on your active listening skill. See figure for a summary of social styles and communication.
|good listener||poor listener|
|withdraws in conflict||opinionated|
|overanalyzes||hates to admit wrongs|
|good listener||poor listener|
|doesn’t offer opinions||talks a lot|
|avoids conflict||tells lots of stories|
|easily gives in||opinionated|