Two ears, one mouth

Posted by  Mark Schenk —July 9, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes

IIm Listening can’t remember who first said to me “you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion” but it is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. Also, when working in many organisations, I notice it is not applied that widely. Shawn and I have come across two examples earlier this year where ‘listeners’ were let go and noisy and opinionated people were never considered to be candidates for retrenchment because of their ‘visible contribution’ to the organisation (it was probably more their ‘audible contribution’). These sorts of decisions further undermine an organisation’s capability to make progress with complex problems.

Listening has a vital role in tackling complex problems, such as any change initiative, either social or organisational. We use our Narrative Insight (story listening) techniques to explore and help make sense of the patterns relating to these complex issues. The following excerpt from The McKinsey Quarterly emphasizes why we should put more effort into listening and less into telling:

In a famous behavioral experiment, half the participants are randomly assigned a lottery ticket number while the others are asked to write down any number they would like on a blank ticket. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offer to buy back the tickets from their holders. The result: no matter what geography or demographic environment the experiment has taken place in, researchers have always found that they have to pay at least five times more to those who came up with their own number.

The lesson is clear – you need to listen to and act on the needs and perspectives of the stakeholders. Even if you don’t like what they are saying. People value what they have a sense of ownership in and you need to listen to find out what that is. And where there is anger, resentment etc around an issue I have found the advice of Professor Brenda Dervin to be spot on..”anger dissipates when people are listened to”.

If you happen to know of the original research referred to in the McKinsey article we would love to hear about it.

Reference: 1. The McKinsey Quarterly 2009 Number 2, pages 101-109

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. This is only accidentally related, but I had to share. My father once tried to use that bit of wisdom on a small boy who was speaking at maximum volume and maximum speed at a party he’d been at. “Have you ever noticed you have two ears and one mouth? What do you think that means?” The boy paused. “The mouth has to work twice as hard to keep up?” he chirped.

    On another note, I’m not sure of the exact article you’re looking for, but I would bet that this one includes it in the references. Or you could try this one; just scroll down to the experiment on active vs passive players.

  2. Mark Schenk says:

    Amanda Horne commented on this via Twitter, advising that in coaching the ratio is 80% listening to 20% talking. Thanks Amanda.

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