Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

When You Cannot Multi-Task: Listening

Tipper McCorsion--ready to listen!“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus put that in his blog in about 75 AD. We have all heard the advice to listen, really listen, as a way to ensure that our conversations are not monologues. Supervisors and managers are admonished to listen to the concerns, needs, requests and views of employees. All employees, at every level, are told to attentively listen to clients and customers, and to each other. Parents are urged to closely listen to their children. We are told that meetings are more productive when we listen instead of merely waiting for our turn to talk. So, is there anything more to say on the topic. Probably not, but listen anyway, OK?

1. Listening is not just the absence of talking, it is attentiveness focused on understanding.  Have you been with someone who said absolutely nothing while you talked–because he or she was uninterested or distracted?  When someone is attentive and focused on understanding, there is an energy in the way he or she listens that is obvious. The listener makes encouraging remarks, agrees briefly, smiles or frowns at the right times, and asks for more information. You can tell he or she is mentally engaged in your comments.

When someone responds like The Great Stone Face, it does not encourage conversation, and the speaker has no way of knowing whether anything is getting through. The lack of response isn’t viewed as thoughtful listening, it is viewed as being rude. Ironically, if Stone Face is being that way to stop conversation, it usually has the opposite effect, because the other person will talk even more, in an effort to get a reaction!

Listening reminder #1: Put as much energy in your listening as you do in your talking. You will notice the difference in how you hear what others are saying, and how much more easily a conversation moves along.

 2. Stay on the topic until you both leave it. If you dramatically move from the original topic to something completely different, it can sound as though you stopped listening before the speaker stopped talking or if you never listened at all.  If you feel it is time for a change of topic or mood, do it in a way that helps wrap up the conversation, rather than shutting it off. Tone down your responses slightly and use a vocal tone and body language that finalizes your remarks. Or, be direct, but in a courteous way, “I’m so sorry about that. Keep me informed about what happens. This is off that topic a bit, but I wanted to be sure to mention it to you.” That engages the speaker and he or she becomes the listener. Just what you were waiting for!

3. Engage in one conversation at a time. If a conversation has significance, find a private location or ensure there will be no interruptions. Even if the conversation is casual, avoid interrupting it to talk to someone else, except for a brief greeting.

This concept of giving attention to a conversation also applies to any other activity you might be involved in while someone is conversing with you. Participants in a recent class complained about their boss who is otherwise a decent guy, but who reads his email while they are talking to him in his office or on the phone. The person talking will say, “I think once I get that spreadsheet set up, we can track all of the work better.” The boss says, “You’re right that will be….I wonder what he means by that? I’d better call him to find out….That just makes no sense at all, especially when we talked about this yesterday…..Sorry, I was reading a memo from Jack, about those new computers. So, what were you saying?”  

It is true that sometimes the speaking style of others–or the topic they repeatedly talk about–detracts from our ability to listen attentively. Or, they simply never stop talking, and you must take control of the conversation yourself.  However, while you are listening, listen attentively with a focus on understanding, before you speak. It is also true that some conversations are intentionally conducted while both people are engaged in another activity. You can usually tell when someone wants your undivided attention. That is when you you cannot multi-task, you can do only one thing at a time–and, if it is possible to do so, the first thing you should do is listen.

4. Make your focused listening a way to build relationships. Try this: The next time you are involved in work, pouring coffee, eating lunch or whatever you are doing when someone wants to talk to you about more than small talk and chit-chat, and it is possible for you to give close attention, purposely concentrate your energy on the conversation: Put down anything you are holding; swivel your chair to face the speaker; step away from anything that could be considered a distraction; stop your body movement; show alertness to every nuance of the conversation; change your facial expression to reflect that nothing is more important than hearing what the speaker has to say. The speaker will notice and often will respond by becoming more energized or by speaking in a more confiding manner.  Even if you do not see a response, the speaker will be aware of your focus and will appreciate your undivided attention.

Listening reminder #2: Being proficient at multi-tasking is a valued trait, unless one of the tasks is attentive listening. 

P.S. The term, The Great Stone Face, is from the title of a book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here is a photo and article about it. Nowadays the term is not used to describe someone with wisdom, but rather someone who shows no emotion. It sounds much better in the abstract than when you are trying to have a conversation!

March 19th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments


  1. The photo of “Tipper McCorison” is perfect for the article! Your thoughts about multi-tasking while listening are right on the money. I noticed yesterday that for me to stop and really listen required some effort on my part. I would have said that I obviously pay attention to people who talk to me at work, but based on my experiment, I don’t think that is true!

    I’ve been to several classes on “Active Listening” and try to give feedback and ask questions so I can understand better, but I realize now I probably do that while concentrating on something else to the point that I don’t even look at the person talking to me! Thank you for reminding me!

    Comment by P.A.H. | March 21, 2008

  2. I also meant to tell you, I was SO excited to see the information about the Great Stone Face! My Grandfather talked about The Great Stone Face all the time and I never knew what he was talking about. I like to read about things like that, so I really appreciated the information. P.

    Comment by P.A.H. | March 21, 2008

  3. Yes, the photo is of my daughter and son-in-law’s Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, a few weeks ago. It’s bigger now. And will get really bigger in the future.

    I’m glad you did a listening experiment. We all need to do that on occasion, don’t we?

    AND, I’m glad you liked the information about The Great Stone Face. I too had heard and used the phrase but must confess I didn’t know the origin of it. Now we both do!

    Thanks for reading and commenting! Tina

    Comment by Tina | March 21, 2008

  4. As someone who has sometimes been called The Great Stone Face, I was also interested in the photo. I don’t see the resemblance to me, so they must have been talking about my rugged good looks.

    Seriously, I have to tell you that I’m guilty of not showing any emotion when people talk to me, to the point that they will ask if I’m listening. I’ve irritated quite a few people that way and didn’t really see why they were so upset. I’m going to work on it. That is the only confession I’m going to make today!

    About Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs….Yeah, it will get bigger! But they’re good dogs and make good pets because they are calm and affectionate.

    Comment by Wiseacre | March 21, 2008

  5. I was wandering on your website, which looks great by the way, and saw this article. I don’t know if it’s too late to comment or not, but I’ll send this and find out.

    This article/post about listening really hit home with me. My former boss had a terrible habit of always doing something while he talked to anyone. The way some people would mimic him was by pretending to be interested while they were doing something else. He was really good at multi-tasking in that way, but you never felt he was particularly interested in anything you said. And no matter what the topic, he could stand up and go to a meeting without any indication he had to make a mental transition. I at least try to wrap up a conversation before I get up and leave, but he didn’t even try.

    After I was promoted I realized one reason he listened while doing other things was because there is so much work to do and so little time to do it in. And, it seems people want to talk about some of the most ridiculous things while I’m trying to get something done. That doesn’t make it right for me to not listen, I realize that. And I don’t want to be like my former boss.

    My natural inclination is to ask people why they would stand and talk when they can see I’m busy. But, I know we’re in a kinder more gentle world. Any ideas for how to avoid the problem or deal with it?

    Comment by CSP103 | March 26, 2008

  6. Hello CSP103!
    You don’t have to feel obligated to be distracted from work by small talk. But, if you are going to have a conversation, have it. If you can’t do it then, just say so courteously and with regret. That isn’t because we are in a kinder, more gentle world by the way—it has always been appropriate to be courteous. 🙂

    Consider honestly telling people you are busy and will catch them later. Let them hear that you are sorry and that you want to talk to them. Then, make a note to do it, and remind them when you do it that you promised. (I am a proponent of subtly or not-subtly reminding people when we follow-through as promised.)

    When you contact the person later, try to take up where they left off, t0 show them you remember what the two of you were talking about. 99% of the time the person will act as though it has completely slipped his or her mind. (I don’t know why people do that, but they do.) Remind them, and focus on listening and responding. Likely it will be much more brief than it was when they were talking to you about it. But you will at least have shown a good faith effort.

    Do not do work in areas where people come and go and may want to talk. For example, don’t collate in the copy room or stand in the general work area to look at a file. Go back to your own work area and show by your body language that you are busy, but not unfriendly. Heavy sighs don’t count!

    Most people are very understanding and accepting about someone being busy. What they don’t care for is having the busy person be officious about it or act as though they are too busy for the PERSON, instead of the conversation. If you make your apologies, go back to work, then continue the conversation later, you will likely find there are no bad feelings and you won’t feel as resentful yourself.

    Best wishes! TLR

    Comment by Tina | March 27, 2008

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