Isn’t Anyone Listening Anymore?

April 19th, 2012 by Celia Young Leave a reply »

Last week, I lost my cool after a series of incidents while working with my personal trainer Mary.     I don’t remember if I have ever done this in the 62 years of my life.  Afterwards, I realized that maybe I was reacting to more than just these immediate experiences.

Here is what happened.

First, she transposed her calendar wrong so she missed our appointment.  Instead of just acknowledging that she messed up, she tried to explain what she did.  When I said I understood the mistake and was ready to move on, she kept on explaining until the next session.  I had to wonder: Did I seem confused?

Then, while she was working with my quads in the following session, I commented on how I would not be able to do this exercise without her help since I could not see my legs’ positioning from behind.  She immediately tried to explain that she knew what she was doing and she was really just trying to help me.  I said to her that I was just frustrated with my lack of ability to work this routine on my own.   But she was too busy defending her competency that she could not hear me.  Did I say she was not helping me?

Finally, she tried to get me to drink a protein shake that she swore by.  I said I did not want to because it contained sugar.  She said, just because I did not want to use it, it did not mean the shake was not good.  Did I say the shake was not good?

What just happened?  If I look beyond these exchanges with Mary, I started to notice the pattern of behaviors that seems to be common among younger people, including service providers, students or employees.  They seem to have no hesitation to stand up for themselves and argue their points of view.  Maybe this is what their parents have taught them.  If this is true, their upbringing certainly is different than mine and generations before me.  We were taught to play with the cards that are dealt to us without protest, while the younger generation seems to want to change the deck.

While many people are very good at advocating for themselves, they tend to miss the art of listening.  If Mary did, she might have found that there was nothing for her to defend.

As a professor, not a semester would go by where I did not have one or two students argue that they deserved a better grade.  They would present all kinds of reasons but none of them had anything to do with their performance in class.

There also seems to be a pattern in this younger crowd who talk so fast that I often cannot understand half of what they are saying.  And they tend to interrupt me when I am still talking.  So, is it because their brain is so much faster like the computer they were trained to use since they were children?  Is it because they live in a world that data is instantly available?  Or because they just did not know how to listen beyond bits and bytes?

In the meantime, the fast-paced life in our current culture forces us to constantly move at light speed and bounce like pin balls.  The multitasking trend does not help either.  All it does is to create a distracted generation that misses the most valuable lesson in life.  That is to be a fully present human being.

Mary is superb in her technical competency as a personal trainer.  What she lacks is the ability to be fully present in her relationship with people.  She is too busy following her own impulse.  The computer in her head puts her on a constantly reactive mode.  She has no ability to sort out the external stimulus and decide what to respond to or not.

As a customer, a teacher and an employer, I have a set of expectation.  I want to see more than technical competency in my trainer, my students or my employees.  I want a working relationship with a mature human being so that I don’t have to teach them how to grow up.

This is just my hunch.  Maybe people in the younger generation have been pampered so much as children that they were never allowed to have any “failure” experience.  And they never learned to have a more appropriate emotional response to the outside world.  Or maybe, all those computer skills have not helped them develop socially.

Many of my major clients in the U.S. and around the world used to tell the new hires that they were lucky to work here.  Now the new hires tell the employers that the company is lucky to have them.

The center of the world has shifted.

This is wonderful and worrisome as the same time.  What is positive is how self-motivated and confident this new generation is and will keep their employers on their toes.  Today’s employers would need to make sure the work environment provides enough stimulus and learning opportunities in order to keep these young people engaged and help them bring their best talents here.

What is challenging is about the same qualities above.  Sometimes overly self-serving and confident people tend not to take in feedback well.  They tend to want to skip a few steps on their developmental journey without paying the necessary dues.  Computers do not have the moral or emotional compass because they are not built that way.  Maybe one day, all computers will have this compass in their artificial intelligence.  But human beings should always be more developed than computers.  We are running the risk of raising a whole generation who act like computers but lack emotional and relational skills that are absolutely essential in order to be successful in this world.

Do we only measure our success based on how much money we have made or how brilliant we are in business?  Did we get here all by ourselves? If not, what happens to our ability to be humble and appreciative of others?

But is this phenomenon only happening in the younger generation?  I think not.  When we stop listening, we are no longer present.  We are quickly becoming a society of talking heads as if, lights are on but nobody is home.  We are not really here.

Listening is more than just hearing through our ears.  Spoken words only represent 25% of the total message. Listening is also about observing non-verbal ques.  It is about scanning our internal and external world.  It is about awareness.  Even when we do listen, we are too busy attaching our own meaning to what we heard or observed.  I have coached many brilliant leaders and found that they have something in common.  Brilliant people tend to walk around with their expertise on their forehead.  They talk over people because they want to tell and teach what they know.  But by over-telling and over-teaching, they have no awareness that they have just alienated people around them and lost the credibility that they passionately want to demonstrate.  Also, people with any kind of expertise are often too busy preparing their answers or rebuttals while listening to others. They do not really take in other people’s point of view.  Since they often believe that other points of view are not as brilliant with theirs, they tend to ignore and not show enough appreciation for them.  This does not help build a cohesive relationship at work.

In David Bohm’s work “On Dialogue”, he talked about how we each bring our assumptions and opinions to the public square.  In the battle among opinions, there is always winner and loser.  If we rely only on competition to go on as a planet, we will never get to a harmonious place where all of us can live peacefully.  Truth does not emerge from opinions.  It must emerge from something else.  It comes from the unspoken and collectively understood places within us.  In “Dialogue”, when we learn to suspend carrying out our impulses and our assumptions and just take in all of them, we will find out that we have a common consciousness and we are all part of the same human race.    If we know we have a shared future, why would we need to spend so much energy by winning the talking war?

True dialogue has two parts:  advocacy and inquiry.  In our current society, we tend to over-use “advocacy.”  Many brilliant executives fall into the same trap.  Since they are very intelligent and accomplished, they often over use their strengths.  They can turn any meeting or exchange into a debate or lecture where they would kill you with their data, thoughts or point of view.     What happens to humility and empathy?     The more they talk, the more they sound like there is something they need to defend about.  The true genius has no need to defend them.

Why do you need to explain or defend so much?  What is your hurry?

Buddhism teaches us that if we want to be understood, we first have to understand.   Inquiry skills allow us to understand others so that we do not hasten to attach our meaning to what we heard or observed and end up creating unintended consequence.

Several weeks ago during a networking meeting, a man I met spent our time together telling me what he and his business were about.  Never once did he ask about my business.

Years ago, on a first date with a man, he spent the first hour and half telling me his life story.  After I came back from the lady’s room, I asked him if he liked to know anything about me.  He said, “Yes, what do you think about us?”

Now I know why I lost my cool last week.

Celia Young coaches leaders to listen fully with their presence.



  1. Jim Henkelman-Bahn says:

    You are right about dialogue involving taking the other person seriously. I relearned this lesson recently when I attended the White Privilege Conference in Albuquerque, NM, last month. My most important learning at this conference was when I was personally open to learning and an incident occurred that surprised me with its impact as I learned a whole new level of what it means for me to be an ally with people of color. I believe, as a white person, I will be more respectful of the boundaries between myself and people of color in the future. Here is what happened. I wanted to go to an Ally Work session that was being offered. I was late. There was a sign on the door that said the session had already begun and please do not enter. I walked in while people were initially paired up in an initial interaction. I was approached by one of the facilitators, who was a person of color, and asked to leave which I did. As I walked out I reflected on how I couldn’t have learned more about how not to be an ally. Here I was transgressing the boundaries with a person of color. I was acting out of my white male privilege assuming I would get what I wanted without taking seriously the clear message that was on the door. A great learning.

  2. Celia Young says:

    Thank you for a great example of listening as more than just hearing.

  3. David J Dunworth says:

    As nearly always, Celia, you have hit the spot. I too am so tired of young people blowing their way through a conversation so fast they can hardly be understood. I just had it out with this so-called multimillionaire trainer that I told him exactly where to put his program. He knows better, regardless of his inability to explain things in jargon-free dialogue. Not everyone understands the terms he so casually throws around, and I quite had enough. So I let him know how I felt, as well as telling his 29,000 followers. Enough BS is quite enough.

  4. Jose Hancock says:

    Thank you for this ‘article’. You express similar frustrations to those I write about in my PhD thesis that deals with the dynamics in cross-cultural education. It also mirrors the scrutiny I am placed under because I wrote and published an article in which I talk about my frustrations around working at a university where few people seem to care about others. Pretty much everyone is in for themselves and the ‘racism’ card is used as a way to justify one’s own viewpoint and overt or covert ways of attacking other viewpoints.

    Your discussion also represents my frustrations in city-streets, where walkers and bike-riders are pretty much always ‘lost’ inside their i-phone which necessitates that I have to almost shout to ask for space so as not to run them over.

  5. I believe that the skill of listening and hearing the other without projecting or making assumptions is difficult for us to master. Without the ability to listen we create misunderstandings, stress and conflict at an inter-personal level. At a global level we create war. Thanks Celia for an insightful blog.

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