Hear, Listen and Attend

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”  ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

When I was young, I was partially deaf. This was due to a number of problems with wax and my sinuses. A couple of operations later and I could hear. Not perfectly, but well enough not to consider it a disability throughout my life.

As a result, it has made me very aware of the sounds around me; the conversations that take place and the discussions that I am involved in. Does this mean I am good at hearing things? I try very hard to hear and can on occasions ask for something to be repeated if I fail to hear what is said. This most often happens in a crowded place with multiple people chatting away.

Does this mean I am a good listener? Nope!

I know that on occasions, whilst I might be hearing what is being said, I can zone out of the conversation; perhaps thinking of the answer I want to give; perhaps thinking of a parallel topic, or sometimes my mind just wanders off. Then all of a sudden, the person that is talking will stop and you realise that they have asked a question and you have no idea what was asked.


The comment “Were you listening to what I was saying?” means they know you were not listening.

There is a distinct difference in hearing and listening. The dictionary definitions are as follows (via Oxford English Dictionary):

hear (verb)   perceive with the ear the sound made by (someone or something)

listen (verb)    give one’s attention to a sound

There is a distinct difference between the two:

  • “I hear you” to me means I understand the emotion you are trying to convey.
  • “I am listening to you”  to me, means taking in what the person is saying. Really, hearing what is being said i.e. “listening and understanding”.

I think back to the comment that was made to me “Were you listening to what I was saying?”, actually, means more than just hearing what was said. It really means, did I take in what was being said and did I understand its underlying reasons.

The next time you are involved in a conversation with someone, really listen to what they are saying, rather than just hearing the sound of the words floating around you.

You might want to try active listening. Active listening is a set of tools and techniques to help you be more effective. Some active listening techniques include:

  • Building trust and establishing rapport.
  • Demonstrating concern.
  • Paraphrasing to show understanding.
  • Nonverbal cues which show understanding such as nodding, eye contact and leaning forward.
  • Brief verbal affirmations like “I see,” “I know,” “Sure,” “Thank you,” or “I understand.”
  • Asking open-ended questions.
  • Asking specific questions to seek clarification.
  • Waiting to disclose your opinion.
  • Disclosing similar experiences to show understanding

Here are some examples of statements and questions employed with active listening:

  • Building Trust and Establishing Rapport: “Tell me what I can do to help.”
  • Demonstrating Concern: “I am eager to help you; I know you are going through some tough challenges.”
  • Paraphrasing: “So, you are saying that the uncertainty about who will be your new supervisor is creating stress for you.”
  • Brief Verbal Affirmation: “I understand that you would like more frequent feedback about your performance.” “Thank you. I appreciate your time in speaking to me.”
  • Asking Open-Ended Questions:  “It’s clear that the current situation is intolerable for you. What changes would you like to see?”

Give one of them a try. You might notice a difference.

In the meantime, I leave you with the following quote.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Work will not set you free, your attitude might

“It was sad, like those businessmen who came to work in serious clothes but wore colourful ties in a mad, desperate attempt to show there was a free spirit in there somewhere.” ― Terry Pratchett, Making Money

A recent article prompted me to reflect on the way we work today and our attitude to work.

The article talked about one of the leading entrepreneurs today, a chap called Elon Musk. You might not have heard of him, but you might have heard of the Tesla car, which is one of his companies. Anyway, Elon was asked about the ups and downs of his life and Elon Musk was asked about the ups and downs of his life – in particular of setting up and growing an enterprise. He replied “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two,”

Although Elon was talking about setting up and running companies, I think that the phrase also applies to many people in the world of work today.

I completely concur with Musk about the ‘great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress’ as I reflect on the world of work that I have lived through over the past 30 years.

I have experienced fantastic highs. Standing in front of 1,000 plus people sharing my experiences of designing and implementing a global Performance Measurement and Management System that supported 2,000 users and was used across a global business. Oh and then being presented with an award, which came as a complete surprise. By the way, to many people standing in front of that many people presenting would be a nightmare. But I enjoyed it.

I have experienced terrible lows. Having to go through a European wide organisation restructure, which meant that colleagues were let go. Having to design the selection criteria and then choose who was to stay and who was to go. Going through the selection process and then watching people being asked to leave a company they cared about and were doing a meaningful job.  To some, a number exercise, but not to me.

Finally, unrelenting stress. As the result of a major change programme that did not go well; having to work 7 days a week with long hours; with exceptional pressure to keep the “boat afloat” and continue to deliver to the customers. Unrelenting. Unforgiven. Harsh and pressured to turn around a terrible situation. 

Reflecting on all of these experiences, I have come to realise that you have to care – and care deeply – about the work that you do and more importantly, the people you work with. Else, why would you put yourself through the pressure, stress and heartache? When you can walk away.

This then poses the next question; work time. If you consider the amount of time you spend in the world of work, both travelling to and from work, as well as actually working itself, it makes up the majority of your adult life. Almost four million employees are working at least 48 hours a week. The average working week in the UK is now 43.6 hours compared with a European average of 40.3 and limits of just 35 in France. If you add on the average 3-hour commute per day, then you are talking about over 58 hours per week working.

Our adult lives are work focused.

Please feel free to say they are not but the truth is, they are. We will never break away from the work world until we get to the nivara of a non-work society where everyone is free to enjoy what they want to do and “work” is carried out by robots. Till then, we will have to work and be tied into work customs and outcomes.

Back to the question I posed at the start. Work will not set you free. You will set yourself free through your attitude.

Whatever work you do, and I have experienced some of the most “interesting” – suitcase porter; soiled bed linen clearer; snooker attendant; multi-vendor service engineer; technical escalation manager,  and even prisoner mentor (yes inside a category B prison with “lifers”); every role, in the end, is carried out by someone.  You will all come to realise that there are very few if any, opportunities to be content in the world of work. Work will not set you free from the grind and effort of delivering a service/product / solution, or whatever.

What sets you “free”, to use a phrase, is how you approach the “work” you do. Your mind set. How you want to serve the customer or the people in the value chain. Your own passion and ethos on serving people.  Even in the most recent challenges I have had, my approach has always been how to serve. In some cases, ignoring the politics of the organisation and focus on the customer and the people involved.

Am I right? Wrong? Will work set you free? Not sure. How you approach work might.

If you want to read more about the tweet and the dialogue that prompted this article, go to:


I leave you with the following quote.

“God might work in mysterious ways, but hell worked on efficient ones.” Richelle Mead, Succubus Shadows

P.S Do not put into google “work will set you free”, else you will get the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (German). A phrase meaning “work sets you free”. The slogan is known for appearing on the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.