Sometimes it’s what you don’t hear that matters

What you don’t hear

I once had to provide a reference for a person that I was thankful no longer worked for me. I knew exactly what I could and couldn’t do. So the call came and here’s how it went.

“Can you tell me about this person?”

“Absolutely. They worked here from June of last year until January of this year.”

“Can you tell me more about what they did and what you liked about them in that role? Or maybe why it was so short a stint?”

“Sure. They worked here from June of last year until January of this year.”

“Could you tell me if you would you hire them again?”

“Sure. They worked here from June of last year until January of this year.”

You know what was being said. Right? In not so many words, I was telling them to stay clear. But the exact words I used were accurate and truthful. Everything else went unsaid. It’s what you don’t hear that matters.

This is just an example

I find that this simple example highlights a general dynamic we all have to be careful about – whether it’s hearing a recommendation for a new book, a new course, or getting a reference for a new hire. It’s also what you hear (or don’t hear) when you’re asking about the status of a project.

The truth is that we can all have blind spots in how we listen. We can insert our own assumptions and hopes into the words that aren’t spoken, and fill in the blanks in ways that help us. But it won’t help us in the long run. The costs will be high.

Our job isn’t just to listen to the words that are there.

Our job is to listen to the words that aren’t there. What you don’t hear is just as important.

When we’re the ones talking

And let me end with an honest suggestion. When we’re asked our opinion, instead of damning with faint praise, and in cases where we can legally afford to do so, let’s be honest and direct in our responses.

It’s so painful to find out later that someone was trying to tell you something in a coded way. Yet I can easily fall into the faint praise posture and it’s not helpful.

So make your words count. And listen for the words you don’t hear.

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