Listening beyond the words

“We’re walking down the road, just chatting away and we go past this flower stall, and she slows down and looks at me and says “you don’t buy me flowers”. So I say – all positive like – “I’ll get you some flowers” and I turn towards the flower stall and she says, “I don’t want any flowers”. Now tell me, what’s that about?”

I recalled this story because I am writing a book on learning to listen and working on a section on what it takes to listen beyond the words. The story came from a workshop on “difficult conversations” that my friend and colleague Clare and I ran some months ago. The speaker was a young, male MBA student and he was recounting a conversation he had had recently with his girl-friend.  The rest of the group of 6 or so were also young (around 30 years of age) and male and they echoed, “Yea, what’s that about?”

Clare and I explored with the group the question they had posed: what is that about? It seems that our student’s girl-friend is, by implication asking him to do something but then she rejects his offer to comply. We can hear the young man’s heartfelt plea: “what is going on?” He is confused, mystified and at a loss to know what to do.  So what is going on here?

Clare and I asked the group what the young woman might actually be concerned about, what her interests and needs might be.

They speculated: “She likes things that brighten her home, she likes to be bought gifts?”

“Yes, possibly”. So we asked: “And if she does, what does it take to buy someone a gift?”

“Well”, they answered, “you have to go shopping.”


“You have to make the time?”


“You have to plan it?”


“You have to think about it in the first place.”


“Well “her”.”

“Ah! So she would like to feel that he is thinking of her?”


“And why does that matter?”

“Because it means he cares for her!”


“Oh, I get it – so that’s what’s going on!”

Possibly – it’s certainly a reasonable hypothesis.

The story came up in the workshop because we had been talking about how, in conflict or in difficult conversations, the position that someone takes reflects their underlying interests and needs. But it may do so obliquely and without the speaker being fully aware of what their own interests or needs actually are.

This means that the words could have a range of meanings. That ambiguity requires a different response. How the young man responded might be called a positive literal response. He took her words at face value, understood their literal content, processed the statement cognitively, treated it as a request and acted accordingly. He was probably feeling quite positive, willing to please, and he did not pause over whether her statement was factually true or not – that did not matter.

The perceived truth of the statement might have become more of an issue if he had been in a less positive frame of mind. “You don’t buy me flowers” contains an implicit “never”. And if he had ever bought her flowers he could have contested the truth (and fairness) of her assertion. He could have argued over the facts of the case. That would be a defensive literal response.

Alternatively, he could respond to the underlying need and the emotion that goes with it. If he sensed the complaint, felt the criticism, he could have reacted emotionally, defending himself with some sort of emotionally driven counter-complaint: “you don’t notice what I do for you” or “you’re so quick to criticise me” or something similar. That would be a defensive emotional response – at some level he would be noticing that the words mean more than they literally say, there is a deeper symbolism at play, but he is rejecting that deeper meaning rather than engaging with it.

A fourth alternative is to notice how “you don’t buy me flowers” was said, to see and hear the disappointment in the speaker’s body and voice, and quickly sense that, whatever it might be, there is a deeper meaning here. Doing that means letting go of any need to get past this (difficult) moment through quick action. It means resisting the temptation to contest the facts. As well as this self-management in the moment, it requires sensitivity to notice that “there is something going on here” and curiosity to discover what the underlying needs and emotions might be. That would be an empathetic, emotionally intelligent response.

So often, because we recognise the words that another person uses, we believe that we understand what they think or want. Alternatively, we can recognise that they might be expressing their deeper self, suspend our assumption that we know what they wish to convey and join them in finding out what they actually mean. We can listen to the emotional truth rather than the factual truth. We can listen beyond the words.

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