Bernard Trafford: Are you even listening?

How much your audience listens can be just as important as what you're saying believes Bernard Trafford

A woman wearing a new hearing aid
A woman wearing a new hearing aid

I have a colleague who, when he hears people speaking (particularly in public), likes to talk about their “noise to signal ratio”. In other words, how much of all that verbiage actually conveys a useful message?

I used to think he was over-critical: now I think it’s a fair observation. But then, it’s not all about what people are saying. As important is the extent to which their audience listens. And, even when they do, how much do they take in?

There was sound good sense in what used to be described as the traditional Methodist sermon. The plan goes like this: tell them what you are going to say; then say it; then tell them what you’ve just said. It’s like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark who avers: “What I say three times is true”.

Neither scheme is as daft as it sounds: repetition helps get your point across and persuades listeners to take notice of your argument.

Noise is distracting: speakers themselves need to avoid distracting their audience from their main point by adding extraneous elements. Even one to one, such interference can be problematic.

I spent last weekend with my nonagenarian parents. My mum, now 92, asked if I thought she was going deaf: “They’ve given me this hearing aid, but I’m not sure I need it. I can hear you perfectly well without it.”

I responded that, as the youngest of five children who always fought to make himself heard who now frequently addresses large numbers of people, it wasn’t surprising that she could hear me. How did I compare when she turned the hearing aid on?

“You’re just the same, dear, only louder,” she replied.

Anyone in a management or leadership position must share my periodic doubts as to whether anyone is listening to anything I say: laudable humility and self-questioning are topped up with a measure of pathetic insecurity. I’m sometimes tempted to walk around with a megaphone in hand in the hope that people might then take notice of what I’m saying.

It’s important to keep messages clear, whether or not the hearing is good. Mum and I had a hilarious misunderstanding which had to do with neither her hearing nor her extreme age. I was talking about “the way ahead”: she thought I was describing a means of measuring the weight of school leaders. It was a pardonable error: moreover, at the time she was probably trying to persuade me to have a third slice of cake

If only people would listen! Look at the state of the world, at the non-conversations by telephone between Presidents Putin and Obama. World leaders and international bodies are posturing, pronouncing, making an awful lot of noise: but is anyone paying attention to anyone else?

While all generate chaff, Russia continues to act in disregard of every international convention. While Ukraine/Crimea is unable to decide what or who it is, we should worry that everyone’s talking and no one’s listening: so many pronouncements, so few of any value or even sincere.

Despite the rhetoric and the shouting, there’s no progress. I fear for our world: these events serve to demonstrate just how fragile is the peace that prevails in Europe, and in so much of the globe.

So much noise, so much distraction.

Every Monday morning I hold a short meeting with all my staff to brief them on what’s happening in the week. For some reason I can’t fathom, the moment I start speaking a leaf-blower invariably starts up outside the window. To be sure, it’s good to have the premises kept tidy and free of fallen leaves: but the timing is unfortunate.

Indeed, only the other day I heard a colleague comment, “You know, all that puffing, blowing and hot air are really off-putting: I just can’t hear the leaf-blower!”


Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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