One person sits in the middle of the other two.  The other two speak at the same time to the listener sandwiched between them, each speaking into the ear nearest to them about a subject that has been decided on before.  Holidays, say.  Two minutes is long enough.  Then the listener becomes a speaker, and the exercise is repeated.  Then the remaining participant takes the middle seat.  You don’t have to repeat yourself – everyone has had more than one holiday.

I thought I was a good listener.  I pride myself on my ability to tune into a speaker and give them my attention.  But this exercise was an eye opener, as it was intended to be.

I spoke to the man-in-th-middle about the week our family spent in New York in the summer where we met up with a good friend, a fellow blogger.  We’d never met him before, and I’ve spent years warning my children about such encounters, but it was beautifully successful thanks to our two families.  It’s an interesting tale and I suppose I chose it for that reason.  It was not a run-of-the-mill story, and I hoped my audience would listen to me.

Then I had to swop to be the middle woman.  The experience was not at all as I thought it would be.  I found it very uncomfortable indeed trying to listen to the two voices.  I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and scream, pulled this way and that.  I closed my eyes in desperation because I felt I could then concentrate better on one sense, but I was blotting out any body language cues that each speaker might have been giving me.  It was impossible to hear both speakers at the same time, and so I was forced to choose.  I discovered that my inclination was to listen to the person on my left hand side.  He was telling me about his holiday, coincidentally also in New York.  Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence – he may have chosen to speak about that particular holiday because he’d already heard about my experience in New York.  It was interesting – he’d shared an experience that I understood.  I also have a tendency to favour my left brain for listening (I choose to hold the phone to my left ear), so I might always have listened to the voice in my left ear more than the voice in my right ear.

I struggled to drag my attention back to my right ear, to the story of the holiday in Epernay, but I could only grab odd words – champagne, champagne, champagne – and I really wasn’t very interested.  I’ve been there too, but I was more inclined to listen to the New York story.  This upset me and made me feel guilty, especially so because the speaker in my right ear is a senior lawyer from the same organisation as me and I felt I should be listening to him in preference to the other man I had never met before.

It was an artificial situation, but actually not that unusual.  Imagine the busy airport queue where your companion is speaking to you, but you find yourself listening more to the fascinating conversation going on behind you.  Or the dinner in a restaurant when you are straining backwards in your chair to discern the juicy indiscrete words of the unknown diner behind you.

The content of the language (how interesting it is to you), the tone of voice, how much you are attracted to the speaker, how loud their voice is, your natural brain disposition – so many factors determine who you are inclined to hear.  The exercise was part of a session at an annual conference in my area of work.  It was aimed at encouraging disputes to be mediated rather than pursued to the bitter end.  Mediators owe a duty to the speakers to give each the same attention, and to set aside their inclinations.  I discovered that was a lot more difficult than I had imagined.

Here is a more detailed description of the exercise.  You might like to try it at home with your family and see how you find the experience, but be prepared to discover that you are not as interesting as the other speaker!

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