Think back over the meetings you’ve had in the past 24 hours. If you’re normal, at least one of those meetings was exhausting. By the end, your mind was begging for mercy. “Please. Make. It. Stop.”

This fatigue may come from a meeting being super boring. Sadly, we still have to endure meetings where a colleague slide-whips us with a Powerpoint deck jammed with text rather than taking the time to distill their ideas into a few simple pictures.

But I’m not talking about those meetings here. I’m talking about the ones where your mind is working overtime trying to figure out exactly what the other person is saying and why they’re saying it. 

That’s because most of us are pretty lousy talkers. We mix two kinds of information up without taking time to sort them for our listeners. Here are the two kinds of information we most often share in meetings:

  • Facts: Facts are those things that are testable, observable. They describe what someone said or did. They quantify results or indicators in the form of numbers. Reasonable people can usually agree on the facts.
  • Interpretations: Facts are one thing. How we view those facts is something else. Interpretations describe how we view the facts on hand. They show the stories we’re telling ourselves about a certain set of facts. It’s how I interpreted what you said or the expression on your face. It’s the story I see behind the numbers.

Both facts and interpretations are useful to a skillful listener. But the reason you’re exhausted after some meetings is that many of us jumble them together when we’re talking. This creates a particular kind of cognitive load for the listener as her mind keeps saying, “Wait, what’s going on here? What am I dealing with – facts or interpretations?”

It would be nice if every talker we met was a pro at separating fact from interpretation. Listening pros know that won’t ever happen, so they develop a habit of sorting. As they listen to a colleague, they’re just quietly sorting the information out…

Fact. Interpretation. Fact. Interpretation. 

Their minds thank them because now they can deal with the information in helpful categories. They can settle down and focus on the other person again. And that’s what enables them to really listen.

Be bright

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