Listening for Unspoken Messages
by Bob Love
Good listening skills are essential for every career professional. To be of greatest service to our clients and others, we must learn to really listen to what they’re saying. But good listening goes beyond just the words that are spoken to us. It also requires listening for unspoken messages. This ability is sometimes called “listening with the third ear” and is something that most of us can develop with practice.
For various reasons, people don’t always state or express the real issue when they speak to us. They may fail to disclose something pertinent about themselves for fear of being judged, ridiculed, criticized, or embarrassed. Instead of disclosing an essential truth or sharing their true feelings about something important to them, they talk around it–preferring to keep it hidden. Such “surface” conversations have an element of political correctness to them and are all about staying within one’s comfort zone.
As a career coach, I regularly hear such “surface” statements from clients. A good example is when clients recite “shoulds” to me. They think they “should” do this with their career, or that they “should” take that degree program. But “shoulds” are rarely authentic to the individual stating them. Mostly they’ve developed from other people’s expectations of that person. And when you listen closely, “shoulds” lack conviction.
Sometimes I don’t actually hear the word “should”, but I do hear something else: a lack of passion in my client’s voice. And a lack of passion is a red flag to me, especially when a client is talking about something as important as their career. It usually signifies that the client isn’t being authentic. They may be projecting someone else’s values as their own, perhaps having bought into a definition of success that is not their own. Or maybe they are seeking someone else’s approval, and sacrificing their own happiness to attain it.
Unspoken messages come in many disguises, but as career professionals we must always be alert to their existence. A recent instance of an unspoken message occurred for me while working in CPC’s Résumé Professional Assessment Centre at the National Job Fair in Toronto. Because of its particular significance for me, I’d like to share it with you.
While working in CPC’s booth, a young woman (about age 30) came to my table seeking advice on how to improve her résumé. Her career objective was to become an administrative assistant. As she spoke about her objective, I immediately sensed a definite lack of passion in the career direction she’d chosen for herself. I probed her a bit on this and sure enough she had some real ambivalence about where she was headed. But despite this, she wanted me to proceed with my critique of her résumé.
Sensing however that there was a bigger issue at stake, I questioned her further about her career objective. Shifting in her chair, she grimaced and looked down at the floor. After some unfruitful discussion about her long-term career aspirations, I finally turned her résumé face down on the table and looked her in the eye. In my most caring and compassionate voice I asked, “What kind of work do you most want to do?”
After a couple of attempts at convincing me that she really didn’t know what she wanted to do, I persisted with the same question, “What kind of work do you most want to do?”
She fidgeted and stammered and her voice faltered as she tried to speak. Finally after some noticeable discomfort and embarrassment on her part she said, “I’d really like to be a police officer”. Her face contorted as she said it, as if she half expected to be rebuked for such an admission.
Maintaining steady eye contact, I leaned forward in my chair. I offered her my most knowing smile and said, “Then why don’t you become a police officer?!”
She looked at me in stunned amazement. It was as if she couldn’t believe that I had given her my full endorsement of the very thing she had wanted to do ever since she was a kid—but had suppressed for so long. “You think so!” she asked.
“Why not?” I replied.
Further discussion with this young woman revealed that she had grown up in Poland always wanting to be a police officer. But in Poland there were no women police officers, only men. What’s more, her father had told her from a young age that only boys could become police officers, not girls. And so she gave up on her dream, convinced that it would never materialize for her. Although she’d lived and worked in Canada for many years and spoke English very well, she was still stuck with the belief that girls could never become police officers—despite the fact that Canada has many visible women officers.
“But what do I need to do to become police officer”, she asked in her slightly fractured English. “I don’t know what steps to follow.”
It became quickly apparent that what this woman really needed wasn’t help with her résumé; she needed a cheerleader and some practical guidance. And I decided right then that I was going to be that cheerleader—and get her on the career path she’d always wanted to follow. It was clear to me that—despite her passion to become a police officer—she’d never been given permission by anyone to actually become one. Not only did I give her some very strong encouragement and permission to become what she’d always wanted to be, I took things a step further.
Believing that actions are often a more powerful motivator than words I said, “Come on”, and I stood up from the table. “Follow me.”
“But where are we going”, she asked in wide-eyed surprise.
“We’re going to talk to some police officers about what steps you need to take to become a police officer”, I said heading across the large convention room. Dutifully she followed me, not saying a word.
Arriving at a booth manned by police officers from the York Region police department, I explained to one of the officers that the young woman wanted to become a police officer and needed some guidance as to how to go about doing that. The officer said he’d be pleased to discuss the process with her.
As I left the woman at the booth to talk with the officer, she thanked me profusely for taking the time and trouble to help her. There were tears of joy in her eyes as she thanked me again and again. But it was apparent that the thing she was really thanking me for wasn’t my time and trouble, it was for my having given her permission to become what she’d always wanted to become—a police officer. I was the first and only person who’d ever done that.
As I returned to CPC’s booth, I was elated that I had been able to have such a positive impact on someone else’s life. I have no doubt that—because she’d wanted it for so long—this young woman will soon become a police officer. All she ever needed was for someone to give her that permission. Given that nobody else had ever done that for her, I was so glad that I was able to. Reaching our booth, I sat back down in my chair and wiped at my eyes.
Thankfully I’d taken the time to listen to the young woman’s unspoken message.
In Memory of Bob Love – a career success coach, inspirational speaker and a resume writer. Through his business “Discover Your Gold” he coached people to successful career transisitons by helping them get in touch with their life purpose and true passions.