Chris Markiewicz's Blog
Every Monday – thoughts, observations and ideas that hold up a mirror to who & how we are

I hear what you say…..

In the post that I wrote this time last week, much emphasis was put on the importance and value of good listening and how it contributes to building stronger, richer relationships.

 Great listening isn’t necessarily about merely doing the listening, but also very much about showing, even proving to the other person that we really are listening to them.

 I have noticed though, over the past decade or so, the emergence of a vogue for something that I have dubbed “lip service empathy”. Quite simply, we use a stock phrase to tell the other person that we have listened – even if we haven’t. This is likely to involve cooing empathetic sounding phrases such as:

 “I hear what you say….”

“I can see where you’re coming from…”

“I understand…”

 Followed, in almost every case by a simple three letter word:


 I actually need to correct myself on this and venture to suggest that the word “but” in this case is actually mis-spelt and should read:


 In other words, the verbal equivalent of a head butt. It serves a similar purpose to a head butt in its physical form. A head butt can have maximum impact, if administered off the back of some kind of platitude. The victim feels lured into a false sense of security before suddenly being in receipt of a mighty, unexpected, painful blow to the head. Brutally effective.

 Lip service empathy followed by a verbal butt can have a similar effect.

 “I hear what you say….” then comes the  “….butt…”  the hit, if you will followed by the forcefully put, opposing counter argument.

 Whilst the “victim” in this case isn’t necessarily reeling from the impact of the words, the intention almost always will be to disempower, prove wrong and ultimately win  the argument.

 When I pay lip service empathy, I’m not really listening (most of the time) or, if I am it will be to pick holes – such as in a formal debate.  The verbal head butt can be doubly damaging if it coincides with the uncontrolled verbal vomit (UVV) as described in previous posts.

 I’m also reminded of what Marshall Rosenberg (originator of non-violent communication) says when he speaks of butting in this way. His US based take on this is to say “don’t stick your butt in other peoples’ faces, they won’t like it”. Yet a third angle on this – equally crude I’m afraid, is “Everything before the but(t) is bulls**t” – emphasising the fact that the verbal butt tends to negate anything positive that pre-empted it.

 Next time you observe two people arguing, notice if they are verbally head butting. It will often be in truncated form with each person starting what they have to say with the words “Yes, butt….” and often UVV-ing into the bargain!

 So, what do we do instead? Especially if we strongly disagree on an issue?

 Four steps:

 Listen in the first place – even if you disagree

Repeat back in your own words the essence of what’s been said – again, even if you disagree. Try and strip out any judgmental, blaming or otherwise contentious content. In other words, repeat back your understanding and hold back on the urge to interrupt with a UVV

Ask a relevant question or two, to gain further understanding

Finally, give your own viewpoint, taking into account any new information or perspectives you may have learned. If you disagree – fine, say so. The person is much more likely to listen in return than they would have done otherwise. See if you can negotiate a way forward. At very least, you have dialogue.

I often run an exercise on influencing and conflict resolution courses where I ask two people who genuinely disagree on an issue to discuss (not debate or argue) the topic using this kind of process. It is astonishing to observe the insights that people have just as a result of listening and cutting out the UVVs and verbal head butts. People observing almost always comment on how calm and considered the interactions are.

 On one occasion, two people had gone through the exercise and discussed fox hunting from opposing perspectives. They each came up to me after the exercise to say that it had been the first time they had ever actually really listened to the other view!

 They still disagreed with each other, but at least had a better understanding of their respective views and, more importantly the reasons behind them.

 One of them had in fact taken part in many hunts, the other owned up to having been a hunt saboteur! How’s that for creating a platform for mutual understanding and  a potential way forward?

 I am perfectly prepared to accept that some of you may find this a little too idealistic, that the world doesn’t work that way, that debate and argument is a way of getting things done.

 Well, I do hear what you say, butt…..


4 Responses to “I hear what you say…..”

  1. This is interesting, especially in meetings where this “BUTT” behaviour is in common use E.g. “I agree with Alan BUTT I really think we should consider xxxx and do yyy” (almost the opposite). So why do some people resort to (and excel) at head butting ? I offer a rational explanation :-

    a) To avoid direct confrontation hoping that the recipient of the “butt” will be paralysed into submission
    b) To be seen by others as a good team player because on the face of it, the “BUTTer” has appeared to build on a suggestion already made.
    c) Gain support from others to the “BUTTer”‘s view which is typically opposite or materialy different to the view of the recipient – this can work well, especially if people aren’t really listening (switching off suring a meeting, now there’s a topic !!)

    I had a senior management colleague who regularly resorted to this tactic, but he didnt have the self awareness to realise that after a while, people saw through the tactic and prepared a strategy for the dealing with his “BUTTing”. On one occasion someone challenged the “BUTTer” and said “how can you say that you agree with XXXXX when what you are saying is quite the opposite. Oh did he squirm !! Actually, I really liked the guy, he had many other good qualities !

    • Spot on Alan – couldn’t have put it better myself.

      As for meetings – don’t get me started on that one. I can already imagine a few posts I could write on that topic>. I enjoyed your use of caps in stressing the BUTT and love the term BUTTer! Now I’ve written this post, I’ll have to do my utmost to stop myself doing it!


  2. This ‘one line quotation’ is a maxim for all of us.

    ” When you speak, you repeat something you already know; when you listen, you might learn something new “

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