The other half of communication

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 4: The other half of communication

Checking In

When people communicate, they usually want one of two things: to solve a problem or to be heard. The stereotype is that men want to problem solve and women want to be heard, but regardless of stereotypes, being truly heard is a rare and precious gift. Most of the other chapters of this book talk about talking, but listening is the other half of communication.

Simply having someone — anyone — to listen to you can be immensely valuable. A straightforward example of this is the “cardboard cutout dog” effect.1

Pace’s Story: Cardboard Cutout Keith

After spending a frustrating hour trying to fix a computer program I’m writing, I finally resort to asking my coworker Keith for help.

Keith: Okay, what’s the problem?

Me: Addition isn’t working.

Keith: How so?

Me: Well, I’ve got these two numbers, here and here, and my program is supposed to add them, but it’s giving me the wrong answer.

Keith: Okay…

Me: So, these numbers come from this other program over here… Oh. The other program spits out text, not a number. You can’t add text and a number. That’s the problem. Thanks for your help, Keith.

Keith: No problem!

Sometimes we get lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. In this example, Pace’s focus on adding the two numbers made her lose sight of the larger issue of where the numbers were coming from. The act of explaining the problem in its full context forced her to take a step back and see the bigger picture, which helped her find and fix the problem.

Eventually, so the legend goes, someone thought of the clever idea of saving money by buying a cardboard cutout dog for the office and letting people explain things to the dog, rather than taking up the time of highly paid software engineers or boring the receptionist with technical jargon.

The cardboard cutout dog effect works because the act of thoroughly explaining a problem to someone requires that we take the time to precisely re-examine all of our circumstances, actions, assumptions, and choices, and the reasons behind them. We have to think the problem through from the ground up. When we come to the problem fresh like this, we see the incorrect reasoning or subtle errors that we missed before.

If listening is this powerful even when the listener is made of cardboard, imagine how powerful it can be with two fully engaged humans! Being truly, honestly heard without judgment or interruption creates a feeling of safety and acceptance, allowing us to converse with ourselves on a deeper emotional level, opening up and dealing with things that we might never touch otherwise.

Walter’s Example: A Conversation with Yohn2

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Yohn?” said Walter.

“…” said Yohn.

“It’s just that I’m so pissed off about the whole thing, you know? I mean, what right has he got?!”

“…” said Yohn.

“Um, well, yeah, I guess I would be pretty angry if I were in his shoes. But that doesn’t make it okay. I mean, I have to do this, and I can’t do it with him in my way!”

“…” said Yohn.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Yohn. That’s a lame excuse. I don’t have to do this at all. I guess I’m just blaming him because… because I’m afraid.”

“…” said Yohn.

“Thanks, Yohn. Talking with you has helped me a lot.”

“…” said Yohn, and smiled.

Helping someone else feel heard takes a willingness to listen to someone and care about what they say. You might judge what the other person is saying, you might have a strong opinion about it, or you might have some advice you feel will help. Let it all go for now, keep your attention on their words, and accept their experience as it is.

Kyeli’s Story: Falling in Love

Sera and I were downstairs in the kitchen, talking. She hit a nerve: a topic that made my heart race and fear well up in me, so I said, “Whoa, I need to think deeply about this; this feels important and big.” I started talking about my self-image and my struggles with self-esteem.

I talked and talked. Sera listened in silence. I cried. I thought. I dug. I unearthed. I talked. I rambled. I kept asking, “Why am I even talking about this?” Sera listened in silence.

After about an hour, sitting on the couch, leaning on Sera, deep in thought, I flippantly muttered, “You know, if I ever met anyone exactly like me, I would totally fall in love with her.”

The universe paused, waited for me to realize what I’d said. Sera remained silent.

I burst into tears, realizing that I had just fallen in love with myself.

I couldn’t have gotten to that realization at that time without Sera’s patience and quiet listening. If she had said, “Do you realize what you just said?” instead of waiting for me to get there myself, it wouldn’t have felt as intense to me, because it had to come from me. This is an example I often remember when I think about the power of listening.

The power of truly listening sparks revelations, eases fear and pain, and helps find and solve mistakes. It can change your life as well as the lives of others.


1. We read the “cardboard cutout dog” story at www.sjbaker.org/humor/cardboard_dog.html. Don’t worry, we’ll explain what it means after the story.
2. This conversation took place between two characters in the video game Suikoden Tactics. It was actually Kyril who had that conversation with Yohn, but the name Kyril looked so much like “Kyeli” that we changed it to avoid confusion.

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