by Rory Franzen


Most people don’t listen. This is a false statement. I hear it or its derivatives all the time. People don’t listen to instructions or directions. They don’t listen to the answers when they in fact asked the question. I am sure right now, as you read this, you can think of five times recently when someone wasn’t listening and it drove you nuts. I am sure you can name one person in your life who chronically doesn’t listen. People just don’t listen.

But it’s a false statement. The majority of us listen to music, we listen to our video games and movies. We listen.

A more accurate statement would be that people do not listen to things that they decide don’t matter. It’s a slightly caustic statement. It burns our ego and hurts our feelings that people might not be listening to us because they simply don’t care. Now, before you go off disagreeing with me, I am not trying to write a lesson on the human condition. This is about Listening.

So, semi tangent. There are many scientific studies and youtubeable clips showing how our senses can easily be tricked. One study showed that if you mix up letetrs in a setenance, poeple can still raed teh setenance with little or no difficulty. Our brains immediately see the error, and correct it so the intent of the word is made clear. One video shows people passing a ball back and forth, it challenges you to count the passes. If you count 7, you win, but then the video rewinds and shows that in the same clip, while you were counting the passes, a man in a bear suit moonwalks through the players. The basic idea behind these tests is our brains delete extra information that is not needed for the task at hand.


Now, I am not a sciency-ologist, but I suggest that this same inference capability our brains have with regards to our vision also comes into play with our hearing. We take the meaningless noise that comes out of people’s mouths, and infer a meaning. We add the appropriate information to make it make sense, and move on.

For example, if we say “hello” to each other, we have multiple ways of saying it: “Hey”, “Howzit?”, “S’up?”, “Howdy”, “Aloha”, “I thought you were dead.”, you know, the usual. Each of these greetings has an appropriate response. If a person says “Aloha,” it would be wrong respond “Greetings, Island Dweller!”

I challenge you with this. Change your greeting; change it just ever so slightly: make it more formal, less formal, in another language. I think you’ll notice that nearly nothing changes. You get the same responses you always did. If you say, “Hey”, I say, “Hey”.  If you say, “Aloha”, I say, “Hey”.  If you say, “I thought you were dead”, I say, “Hey”. That’s because, like most people, I don’t listen all the time. My brain takes the meaningless sound that comes out of your mouth, and translates it as “dude is trying to say hello, give polite response” at which point I say, “Hey.”

Sure, this is different than more complex conversations we have, but this is how they start. We start off by not really paying attention, and only focus for realsies: -When something goes wrong, -When something doesn’t work, -When we realize there was a miscommunication. This is where we start blaming “them” for not listening. The truth is we were all listening, just not paying attention. We were inferring what someone was telling us, and supplying the response we inferred was correct.

We are good at it. We get through most of our day deleting the majority of what we hear as not relevant. But, and this is a big BUT, imagine all the things that wouldn’t go wrong if we just got better at really listening.

“The $10,000 Lesson”

Recently, I was at my job, and speaking with a customer that had recently been traveling and was surprised she had maxed out her credit card. At first, I just went through the normal “blah, blah, your transaction, blah, blah, your last payment, blah, blah, your last locations where you used your card…” and she wasn’t paying attention either, because she sat there and agreed that she had spent nearly $10,000 in Ireland. Luckily, she was speaking to an improviser who listens, and I paid attention to that. The $10,000 in charges that I had just read off, the $10,000 she just agreed that she had spent: at hotels and bars and auto shops, they ACTUALLY took place in Israel. They were not her charges. Her disregarding what the guy on the phone actually said, and supplying what she thought happened nearly cost her $10,000. Had I just disregarded the seemingly meaningless noise that comes out of the phone I would have missed $10,000 of fraud.

All of us not really listening, not paying attention, it does get us through the day. We are able to function, have lives, make friends. But us not really listening makes for the little annoyances that tip the scale into a bad day. Not listening costs us money. It costs us time. Not really listening is why he/she left.

This is the core reason why so many smart, successful, and otherwise great people take improv classes, and have these huge reactions that impact the rest of their lives. Improv is all about, and I mean ALL about, shutting off the auto pilot on your listening skills. When you do, you seem smarter. When you are not auto piloting, you seem like you care. When you are in the moment, acting and reacting in perfect sync with the people around you, they feel connected to you. When you are really listening, you notice problems and miscommunications before they cost you time and money, or a future.

Ever so slowly, as we listen, as we pay attention. As we learn to care about the meaningless noise that come out of other people’s mouths, we start to erase those minor annoyances that tip the scales into having bad days. It might even save you $10,000 dollars.

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