Not Listening Is Not the Problem

Still, we hear you.

The curious tone deafness of Basecamp

Basecamp was one of those companies known for “getting it.” It had long prided itself on being a moral leader among same-same tech with a keen ear for customer and employee needs. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the two founders, were seen as progressive voices on the future of work, and their 2010 book Rework tore apart stubborn productivity myths and made a case for company cultures not driven by bureaucratic rigmarole or workaholism. “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work,” they claimed, and for a long time, Basecamp seemed to exemplify their credo. Until, well, it got crazy at work.

Over the past few days, employees have been leaving the company en masse after a controversial blog post in which CEO Fried outlined Basecamp’s new philosophy prohibiting “societal and political discussions” on internal forums. Co-founder Heinemeier Hansson offered “generous” severance packages to anyone who disagreed with the new stance.

It's worth reading excerpts from the original post:

Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.… It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens.… We don’t have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but they’re not our topics at work—they’re not what we collectively do here.

One can understand where the founders are coming from. In a business world where having a social mission is the new business card, Fried’s realism and modesty can come across as honest and refreshing.

And yet, it is perplexing how the Basecamp founders misread their employees’ sentiment, how disconnected they appear to be from their staff.

A recent Gartner survey found that 68 percent of employees “would consider leaving their employer for an organization that takes a stronger stance on societal and cultural Issues.” It turns out Basecamp’s employees are no exception.

The desire to separate work and personal life has always been one of Basecamp’s flagship values. But in the wake of the events of 2020, this kind of imposed clarity is no longer tenable. Things have gotten blurry. Boundaries are no longer drawn around the domains of work-life but one’s ideological convictions. Coinbase, Google, and Facebook have faced similar hurdles when attempting to defuse disagreements among their employees.

A new gospel that’s been audible all along is gaining steam: being your true self at work means being allowed to be your political self at work. Asking workers to simply sweep their differences under the rug is now the equivalent of telling them you don’t want to hear it—and now more than ever, everyone wants to be heard.

So, yes, listening matters! And it’s complicated.

You aren’t listening

You have ten minutes until your first meeting with a friend you haven’t seen in person in months. From the subway to the street to the coffee shop, you hear the clatter of an electric train, car engines, the hiss of a bus’s air brakes. Doves coo in a tree above, and a ringtone that sounds like your own phone sings out from the pocket of the stranger behind you on the sidewalk. It all reaches your ears, and you feel aware of everything important—you can separate signal from noise. But when your friend tells you she’s thinking about leaving her boyfriend, something she says reminds you of an argument you had with your husband. He wants to use cold water to save energy. That’s fine for dirty clothes but not for dirty plates, you told him. Don’t plates need hot water to get clean? You think, for the 274th time, that your husband lets his idealism get in the way of common sense. Then you realize that your friend just asked you a question: “Am I overreacting?” She had added a few more thoughts about the boyfriend, but you don’t remember what she said. You hadn’t actually been listening. You love this woman, but for some reason sustained attention to what she was saying eluded you.

According to researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avi Kluger, improving listening skills takes effort. More than simply paying attention, listening requires resisting the urge to interrupt with suggestions, to share our views, or give advice. We are also lucky, or cursed, enough to live in an era when the amount of words and sounds we are presented with greatly exceeds our capacity to process them.

Genuine listening is time-consuming. It demands a certain energy investment. In a workplace setting, managers may feel that listening to employees drains them of authority, or at least the appearance of it.

Enter the search terms “listening” and “management”: 386,000,000 results. Listening is clearly a problem many of us want to solve. We often pretend to listen, planning what we’ll say next or listening only to find flaws in an argument, or ways we might be criticized or rejected.

Hearing what others have to say can be truly frightening. Taking in new information often brings about change. One could even argue that hearing what others have to say is risky because it challenges our self-sovereignty. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Are you not listening because you’re bored, or are you bored because you’re not listening?

Listening as a tool (to get the things we want)

Listening—or even simply allowing more room for silence in our conversations—has its uses. The person you’re in conversation with may seek to fill the silence with information they might not otherwise have shared—making silence a powerful strategy in negotiation, interviewing, and psychotherapy.

How comfortable we are with silence, though, can vary by culture. According to one study, silences in business meetings in Japan were considered comfortable for up to 8.2 seconds. Among Finnish speakers, too, longer silences are tolerated.

But when someone goes quiet, does that mean they’re really listening?

There’s an entire science devoted to spotting non-listeners, whose eye contact may be too fixed instead of naturally wandering, who may smile for too long, or who may even position themselves physically as though trying to escape (one foot closer to the exit, or, on a Zoom meeting, perhaps inching toward the edge of the frame).

And we get bored when we hear someone saying things we believe we’ve heard already. My daughter sees right through me when I do. “You are not listening,” she’ll say. Others have noticed. Someone said to me the other day, “I can tell you are not interested in what I have to say.”

Then there’s the listening death spiral that is Zoom.

We listen by nodding our heads, reassuringly. Delays from spotty wifi have us interrupting people when we don’t intend to, or not hearing something even when we ache to. But it’s often—especially in big team calls—too much effort, too awkward to ask the person to repeat themselves. So everyone moves on. We paper over the inadequacies of listening by multitasking.

Online, reading social cues becomes hard if we don’t look closely enough and listen “between the lines.” We are present, but not really. The “Zoom gaze” leads us to be more distracted by our own appearance than we would ever be in person.

I love how the Wikipedia editor puts it: “Pseudo-listening is a type of non-listening that consists of appearing attentive in conversation while actually ignoring or only partially listening to the other speaker. The intent of pseudo-listening is not to listen, but to cater to some other personal need of the listener.” (Emphasis mine.)

Just once I want to hear someone admit that they’re not truly listening at work because their primary goal in any team conversation is to sound smart, and that some sort of imaginary smartness crown is all they really hope to get out of it.

Listening, or maybe we should say “listening,” is for such people a means to a cynical (or maybe just tired, jaded, or hyper-competitive) end. You know who I’m talking about. It may be you. I know it’s been me on a few occasions.

Why listening matters (the benefits)

Yet to listen poorly does put you at risk of missing out. A few years ago a friend who knew lots of fancy people told me a story, possibly apocryphal, of someone asking Henry Kissinger’s brother—who supposedly speaks with a standard middle-American accent—why he didn’t sound like his famous sibling. “Oh, Henry was never a good listener,” this other Kissinger said.

I’ve always found it easier to learn by listening. To study for school, I would pretend I had to present to an audience, reading aloud and presenting to myself (and my stuffed animals). I watched films to imitate the accents, to invite a new sound into my head and have it reverberate. It’s a bit like an “Ohrwurm”—having a song stuck in your head. I listened to perfect my imitation and make this new ________ my own.

Eavesdropping on other people’s conversations is also a great joy.

I cannot not listen. I want to be part of it, but leave space to make up the end of the sentence I could not overhear anymore.

When I’m not supposed to, I listen, actively. It feels like listening to a song for the first time, even though I know the words from a different context.

So was he making a fuss about his relationship to his soon-to-be wife or his roommate? What was it that their boss said after he was confronted?

(Fun fact: the word “eavesdropping” comes from the word for where the eaves of a roof extend beyond the outer walls of a structure, a space once known as an “eavesdrip.” Standing in the eavesdrip—out of the rain—enabled you to hear what was going on inside.)

At work I learn most from imitating my colleagues—the words and phrases they use again and again, and how they speak them: what they emphasize, their tone, their facial expressions.

I gather scraps of conversations and puzzle them together differently, trying out how it feels when these words come from me. It’s my attempt at finding a shared language and more so, a key that allows us, eventually, to listen better to one another and together. That makes us hear both what’s being said and “the rest” between the lines, which often is the hardest to listen to.

And for you managers: Listening to employees helps you come up with new ideas, become a more effective leader, and boosts engagement and initiative. Listening to your opponents even makes your arguments more persuasive.

Listening, in short, benefits not just you.

The experience of being listened to helps disempowered groups feel heard, and helps people everywhere feel less social anxiety. Feeling heard in the workplace creates space for more complex attitudes about one’s abilities. It’s a salve against extreme views. “Our findings suggest,” Itzchakov and Kluger write, “that listening seems to make an employee more relaxed, more self-aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and more willing to reflect in a non-defensive manner.”

Hold up, wait a minute!

Let’s not overstate the case for listening, as many thinkers in the business / management / self-improvement space are prone to do. Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening, contends that “how you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you.”

Nonsense. Listening to others doesn’t make anything happen. Plenty of people listen attentively to people who would never return them the favor. (Just picture Donald Trump and his followers.) When we take an instrumental view of listening, when we approach listening as something you do to get results, we rob it of something.

So here’s a contrarian view:

Listening is overrated

Business literature has been replete with calls to elevate listening skills for decades. We have “Chief Listening Officers” now. But this steady drumbeat of “better listening” in business is counterproductive.

You could argue that effective leaders and managers need not really be good listeners, but expert at discerning what is worth listening to and what isn’t.

Not everyone is so lucky.

For most employees, a bigger cruelty than non-listening or shallow listening lies in being forced to listen too much: the TMI oversharing of colleagues at the team dinner; the inspirational speeches of managers who pollute our minds and hearts with organizational missions we are paid to believe in.

Indeed, much of what we do at work is listen to what managers and colleagues (and not the least, customers) have to say. The lower we are in the food chain, the more “active listening” is expected of us.

Yes, honing our listening skills makes sense, but more importantly, those who have the word, and have it often, must be more economical with it.

The real boost to our well-being comes from the power to choose to listen to what we really want to listen to. If all the management scholars, mostly white males, who write about listening actually listened, not to the management canon, but to what workers told them they really wanted—and didn’t want—our workplaces would be better off.

The reality is this: When we sit across from one another in meetings or are the audience for a presentation, our minds rush through vast landscapes of signals formed by information, opinions, experiences, memories, biases, and an array of mental images and feelings, to quickly arrive at a possible response that is reasonable, relevant, and conforms with social values.

Sometimes, though, something magical happens. We transcend the need to listen, the need to understand. We are just gazing at the other person with a sense of awe that is baseless, inexplicable, and uninformed, and utterly independent of what is actually being said. Instead of listening, we are wandering and wondering. We are not processing. And we are experiencing something far more important than listening:


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