David’s Diary: Listening Despite The Noise

We had a small internal meeting at work last week and one of the things we decided was that for the month of November we would try to focus as a team on the theme of Listening. Listening is pretty straight-forward I thought – most of us have been doing it since birth! But actually, the more I thought about it, the more complex it seemed to become. I thought that for the next couple of blogs I might look at different aspects of what I think it means to listen effectively.

The World we inhabit is, of course, very different from the past in many ways, not least of which is in the way that we are hit with information and opinion from every direction all the time. I’ve come to conclude that in this world, a really important part of listening in a meaningful way, is being able to discern the difference between what we can rely on and what we should question.

I think it’s fair to say that I have a tendency towards nerdiness. I am currently reading a book on statistics for non-mathematicians, and I’m finding it incredibly fascinating. It’s also a little bit scary, especially as it is has been highlighting for me how misuse of statistics and information generally can completely change our understanding of the facts. These days it is becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between truth, part-truth and complete fiction. We are bombarded with stories, facts, scams, scripted ‘reality tv’, product-placement and opinions, all jumbled up and presented to us in the form of newsfeed items and temptingly-worded clickbait pieces. On top of which, the more cynical politicians and activists have realised that if they make enough noise about some conspiracy or claim; or shout loudly enough about ‘fake news’, they can sow seeds of doubt into our mind on any subject, whether that be climate change, Brexit or anything else.

I can’t help thinking that however difficult it is for adults to make our way through all of the digital noise, it must be almost impossible for children and teens to be able to unscramble truth from fiction and know what they can trust and what they should treat with caution to avoid being manipulated.

In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre described how in 2006 a newspaper in England ran a headline that said Cocaine Floods the Playground. This worrying story referred to UK government statistics about how cocaine use among 11-15 year olds had DOUBLED in the previous year. Certainly, that sounds like an incredibly troubling statistic – surely it needs a serious response? However, when looked at more closely, the statistics were not quite what they seemed. Firstly, the actual rate of cocaine use was described in the Government report as 1% in 2004 and 2% in 2005, so the real numbers were still very small. Secondly, both those figures had been rounded to the nearest whole number – the exact figures were 1.4% in 2004 and 1.9% in 2005 (so, out of 9,000 children in the survey, 45 more said they tried cocaine in 2005 than in 2004). And thirdly, because the survey wasn’t randomised, it is quite possible that it had thrown up unrepresentative results – those few children who had taken cocaine were going to the same schools and potentially hanging out with each other, so may not have been a good sample of children at large. You might almost suggest that the statistics should have given rise to the headline School-Age Cocaine Use Unchanged (may not have sold as many papers, I guess?).

Perhaps, in order to listen in a meaningful way, more than ever before, we need to pay really close attention; educate ourselves; and then be willing to question, so that we cannot be manipulated so easily. I need to constantly remind myself that to listen effectively I have to ask myself where the story came from and what exactly are the tiny but important details that give meaning to that story. I am coming to the conclusion that the art of listening must include the disappearing art of questioning.

Bye for now,


Listening is the LIFT team’s  theme for the month of November and we want you to join us in focusing on this theme also for the month. 

You can start by reading more about the importance of listening.  Maurice Prendergast, one of LIFT’s Advisory Board, wrote an article about the role good listening plays in leadership. Follow the below link to read more. 

Listening needs more ears