Communication is what the listener does

Communication is what the listener does

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

When I first started working with Manager Tools, I noticed that there was a phrase which they would often use and which I had never heard before: “Communication is what the listener does.”

The quote is Mark Horstman’s but he credits its origin as being from Peter Drucker’s book ‘Management’ in which Drucker states that a person speaking does not communicate, they utter words.  The person (or persons) to whom they are speaking, i.e. the listener, is the one who communicates, in that they ‘perceive’ the words they have heard.

When you think about that sentence properly, it can be quite something to get your head round.  It certainly was for me.  It means that I must take full responsibility if I am not getting my message heard.  If others can’t understand a point I’m trying to get across that’s not down to them not being as smart as me.

Communication is at the heart of what we do here at Bloomsbury.  If we can’t communicate effectively with our clients, co-workers and strategic partners then life is going to be immensely frustrating – for them and for us.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Robert McCloskey

Everyone has a preferred communication style – some of us like to have a lot of detail, others want only the big picture; some of us naturally communicate in a warm and friendly way, others are more reserved.  The challenge arises when two people with differing natural communication styles interact as it is all too easy for us to try and communicate with them in a way that works for us, when what we should be doing is trying to communicate in a way that works for them.  This might translate into several possible considerations:

  • If it’s a conversation, listen to them. Do you they naturally talk slowly or quickly?  Loudly or quietly?  Whilst the aim here is not to mimic them, which could come across as somewhat strange, temper your natural style so that it moves closer to theirs;
  • Avoid the use of jargon. I’ll never forget being in a review meeting many years ago with a colleague who kept referring to ‘basis points’.  After the fifth or sixth time of using the term one of the clients eventually turned to me and said, ‘What is a basis point?’
  • Look for signs of engagement. Has the other person ‘tuned out’? Research shows that our attention span is getting shorter.  If you’re speaking for more than about 30 seconds, then it’s a monologue, not a conversation

Effective communication is a skill and, like any skill, it can be learned.  It takes more effort than just ploughing along with your own way of communicating but unless you only want to be able to communicate effectively with about 25% of the people you encounter, you might think it’s a skill worth having.

“First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.”


Warm regards