Do You Listen to Speak or Listen to Learn? Role of a Manager in Education (Part 12)

Do you listen to speak or listen to learn

This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute

Listening to understand and learn is often harder than not-really-listening because you’re thinking about what to say. Dr. Deming emphasized learning and was excited about ideas he heard from others every day. In this episode, David Langford and Andrew Stotz talk about why and how managers, including teachers, should listen to staff or students.


0:00:03.4 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz and I’ll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today, we continue going through Dr. Deming’s 14 items that he discuss in New Economics about the role of a manager of people after transformation. In the third edition, that’s page 86. In the second edition, that’s page 125. And we’re talking about point number 12 and that is “he listens and learns without passing judgment on him that he listens to.” And we decided to title this one, Do You Listen to Speak or Listen to Learn? David, take it away.

0:00:56.8 David P. Langford: Yeah. Well, thanks. It’s good to be back, Andrew. Yeah, I was just, I was just thinking that when I was at Deming’s conferences and a couple of times sat with him either after the end of the day or even at lunchtime, etc. Or just watching him interact with other people, it was often pretty amazing that he’d be chatting with somebody and then he’d pull out these little notebooks and he’s all of a sudden just writing down something that somebody told him or that somebody said or… And later in the day, a lot of times he’d pull out the notebook and say to somebody, “Look what I learned today.” And I was always just so impressed with that. And I don’t know how many four-day conferences I was at with him, at least half a dozen, and always the same, always swan with that little notebook, always writing stuff down.

0:02:02.9 DL: And so this point comes to mind about how special that made you feel that here you have the master of the third industrial revolution, writing down what, what you say, people that he doesn’t really know that well or something, but just a point that somebody made and how important that was to him and to keep track of that. And a lot of times I think we’ve lost that skill. And I like the title of this session because a lot of times when people are having even casual conversations, they’re not really listening to what the person is saying. They’re thinking about what they’re going to say next or how they’re going to respond to a point that was made. And when I really started taking these points to heart and thinking about it, even as a classroom teacher, I began to realize that I really wasn’t listening to my students. I was preparing to talk at them. [laughter] I remember…

0:03:16.0 AS: And they were preparing to be talked at.

0:03:18.6 DL: Yeah. They’re ready to take notes, and you know, but they weren’t ready to think and offer opinions and to go through that whole process of working through it. I’ll never forget my friend Dr. Myron Tribus, he was a professor at Dartmouth, I think in the engineering school. And for some reason, his whole lecture that he was going to do one day was just either lost or something just before he was ready to walk out in his classroom of 200 kids, students that he was working with and everything. And he thought, “Oh my God, what am I going to do? I don’t have my notes. I don’t have all this stuff and everything else.” Anyway, he just started asking them questions and put them into groups and had the groups discuss things and then come back and pose questions and debate each other and talk and work through. And he told me he’d never had so many students on the way out of classes. “Wow, that was the best class we’ve ever had.” [laughter]

0:04:21.7 AS: Such a great, a great opportunity when you come unprepared, but you’ve got a group of people in front of you with all kinds of opportunities to pull out discussions.

0:04:37.3 DL: It’s sort of like, are you prepared to be unprepared? [laughter] So there’s a difference, there’s incompetence where you just come in and you don’t know what you’re doing and, you know, you’re lost, or you’re prepared, this is a plan that you’re going to come in and actually listen to people and present and go through things. I remember even in a high school class that I had, one of the most successful things we did is, I may have told you this story before, but anyway, the library would get all the newspapers and then after a day they’re no good. And so coming into class, I would just get all the newspapers from the previous day. And the challenge for the students was to go quickly through the newspapers and pick out relevant events happening around the world and be prepared to discuss that in small groups and stuff. At first, I just thought of it as an activity. And it turned into be so profound that students really thought deeply about stuff.

0:05:43.1 DL: And then they would take Deming principles and apply that to that situation, whether you’re talking about world wars, or you’re talking about the economics or business or education or whatever it might be. And I remember even just a few years ago, a student of mine, 35 years ago, ran into me and said, “I still remember doing that. I still remember those discussions going through.” And most of the time, I was just sitting and listening to them discuss about things. And maybe I’d ask a few questions now and then about things or try to get them to think differently about something. But it was, there were no right or wrong answers, it was just getting people to think.

0:06:30.9 AS: There’s so many different things going on in my head as you’re talking about this. The first thing is I was thinking… I was thinking about three things. The first is, in order to achieve what he’s talking about, first, you have to stop talking. And the second thing is what I’ve learned over the years is, the best way to stop, the next thing you have to do is stop thinking, because my mind’s racing to think about what am I going to say next. And the best way to stop thinking is to take notes of what the person is saying, from my experience. Yesterday, I went to visit a, a prospective client, and I asked him to tell me about his pain that he’s feeling in his business and why he’s asked me to come. And I have in my notebook here, I’ve got it all listed out. And then I went back and I read them back to him. And it was kind of funny because I said, “Unfortunately, I just don’t think this is enough pain.” [laughter] But I don’t think I could have said that if I hadn’t really understood what his pain was. And so, we had a further conversation going deeper.

0:07:42.5 AS: But then the third part that Dr. Deming is talking about is not passing judgment. Wait a minute. Come on. I’m all about judgment. I know what’s right. I formed my beliefs over many years. And you can also say that Dr. Deming passed some pretty tough judgment, you know. So, I’m just curious, as I think about those three things, how do you put that all together in your mind?

0:08:09.2 DL: Well, I was just thinking about one of the conferences that we were at. He always had an education day after one of his conferences. And so, there’d be educators from all over the state would come to his one-day conference. And I’ll never forget the room was filled with like 300 school administrators, principals, some teachers, et cetera. And then there was a time to ask Dr. Deming questions. And this fairly young man got up and described the high school that he was a principal of, and there were 52 different languages spoken, and the gang violence that he was dealing with, and all just really detailed and clear. And he had data, and he really understood what was going on. He says, “So Dr. Deming, I need your advice about what, where I should go from here, what I should do.” And Dr. Deming is sitting up on this big stage. He’s probably 89 years old at the time, and he’s got his arms folded, and he looks down, and he looks up at the ceiling.

0:09:14.1 DL: The silence is just deafening with 300 people there. And started to think, well, maybe he didn’t hear the question or realize he’s supposed to [laughter] he’s supposed to answer or something. And finally, the guy couldn’t stand it anymore at the microphone. He says, “Well, Dr. Deming, do you have an answer to my question?” And Dr. Deming said, “It’s not the answer that’s important. It’s the question. And you’ve got that right.” [laughter] Next question. [laughter] And there was just this ripple in the audience, like, “What does that mean? Oh, my gosh.” Yeah. So when you’re able to actually ask the right questions, then you’re probably on the right track of figuring out what to do yourself. It’s the people that aren’t listening and aren’t thinking about what is the next question? Or what question should I be answering?

0:10:10.3 AS: And what do you think about when he says… Now, we have to understand that, we’re talking about managing your people here. So it’s not like he’s talking about when you’re going out and speaking in the public necessarily, but he’s talking about how you’re developing your people and interacting with your people. And he’s saying, without passing judgment. And I guess the first thing he said, if the way you interact with the people that you manage is to pass judgment on them, you’re probably going to lose trust right away. And we’ve already seen that trust was number 10. So I guess what he’s trying to say is, you know, listen and accept what you hear. I don’t know.

0:10:55.2 DL: Yeah, I think what I’ve often taught teachers a lot is to learn to be comfortable with silence, too. You think you’re the leader of people so you have to fill all the silence all the time. And you may ask a question, and then you have to just wait. And I’ll never forget when I was working with Alaska Native students in Alaska, high school students, read a study that said the average time it takes for an Anglo Saxon teacher to ask a question and then answer their own question is like three seconds. You know, not really listening at all. The average wait time, response time for Alaska Native students was something like 20 seconds. So, here you have all these teachers that have come in from the outside that are starting to work with Alaska Native kids. And they, I remember vividly teachers saying, “Well, these kids just don’t respond. They just don’t talk. They just don’t.” Well, give them time. [laughter] It’s not in their culture just to respond instantly every time you ask a question or like a game show host or something like that of how many questions can we get through in one hour or something.

0:12:19.3 DL: And I just noticed for myself that I had to do little things like learn to put my hand on my watch, while I, as a cue just ask… I asked somebody a question just to wait until I got that response. And sure enough, when I would wait, I would get really good thought out well…good responses. I didn’t wait and I get just cheap answers that people are trying to give you what they think you want to hear.

0:12:53.8 AS: I just thought about how being a podcast host has helped me a lot in listening because, I’m doing two things, one is I’m shutting up. And there’s so many times that I feel like, you know I think my discussions with you are a little bit different from my discussions I do on my other podcasts where here I think there’s a lot more… We’re going back and forth on a lot of things, which I really enjoy. But still, it’s just, it’s a lesson in being quiet. And what you just said reminded me of something I always said to people that came to Thailand, either managers or teachers, and I said, “Just because Thai people don’t respond to your question doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion.” And I think it’s the same thing as what you’re saying. And therefore, you’ve got to use different ways. So in the case of Thailand, one of the ways you do that is you have… And I just saw a presentation recently by a Thai person and they messed up themselves because what they did is they asked the audience, “Raise your hand and ask a question.”

0:14:05.0 AS: Which they knew that that’s not how Thai people respond. They’re not so brave as to do that. But luckily, that person also had a little venue that they could type in a question. And instead of in, they could have saved time by just not even saying, “Shout out your question,” they could have just said, “Go to the app, type in your question now.” And then people would have really… Eventually they got it. But it was just interesting to see even a native person not really realizing the way people respond.

0:14:39.4 DL: I just know, even in my own family have five children. Well, my wife and I have five children. [laughter] But when they were really little, by the time we got to probably the third one, we had to sort of just hold back the older kids, because we found out that they were just filling in all the blanks for the little ones that couldn’t answer or couldn’t answer incomplete sentences, or they were actually just completing their thoughts for them and things and just had to explain to them, “Look, you just have to wait and let them formulate an answer and let them talk, let them speak.” Because they didn’t realize that they didn’t have that problem when they were that age. [laughter] They just had parents that were just doting on them and there weren’t any other children around. So.

0:15:31.6 AS: Let the process happen.

0:15:33.8 DL: Yeah, it worked out really well because then we’d have fantastic dinner conversations in which all five of them at different ages could enter in and talk about it and enjoy experiences.

0:15:48.3 AS: One other thing I recently did in one of my classes that maybe I would talk about because there’s an aspect of listening to it. Originally, this is my ethics in finance class, and it’s a 15 hour class. And I can teach for 15 hours on the ethics material, but after COVID happened, it’s like, why not just put it all on video. And so what I’m teaching is exactly mirrored to what’s in the videos. So now what I did is I told the students, “Look, you’re responsible for going through this material. I’m going to carry you through a portion of it. But from day one, I’m telling you, it’s all in the videos. And then there’s practice questions and things like that.” So now what I do is I did… Originally, what I did is I taught for half the three hour session I would teach and then I would have them do case studies. But I realized that I wasn’t happy with what the case studies were bringing out and so I switched it to debates.

0:16:47.4 AS: And now I give them topics and they have teams that debate. And I still had the problem that the audience wasn’t participating or asking really great questions, it’s almost like, it’s the other team. So I required all teams to submit one, let’s say two arguments with some sort of link to some evidence and two arguments against linked to some evidence, and they all have to submit that by Monday. And then I release that to the whole group, so that the teams that were preparing for Wednesday can see even wider view before they get up on stage. But the key thing is that what’s happened now is that I don’t have to ask any questions at the end. So I’m just listening. And it’s fantastic, because the audience now, they’ve got good questions. And I just feel like when you talk about listening for me to be able to spend the second half of the class, I don’t say anything.

0:17:44.3 DL: Yeah, so it seems like such a simple point. But I think when you really think about it, there’s just a lot of depth there and reasoning. And you also made me think about, because you were referring back to the one of the previous points to and trust and stuff, but all of Deming’s work was always an interrelationship of parts to the whole. So whether you’re talking about the 14 points in his New Eco… Or the Out of the Crisis book, or you’re talking about these 14 items for managers or whatever it might be. I was always so impressed that he always saw these things as an interrelated parts to the whole. So it’s not like, “Hey, if you just start listening and just do this, then everything is just going to be great.” Well, that’s a piece of the puzzle, that’s not the whole puzzle.

0:18:31.0 AS: It’s a progression. Well, is there anything that you would add in wrapping up about listen and learn without passing judgment on the person that you’re listening to?

0:18:46.5 DL: I think, I think the last thing is that as a manager of people, whether it’s a teacher in a classroom or whatever it might be, you have to actually formally make time to do that. And I know that’s really hard to do, but you think of a normal like classroom teacher, like K through 12 classroom teacher, maybe you have 30 kids in a class, how are you going to set up a system so that you’re actually getting some time to listen and learn from individual students? And that’s really hard to do. It can be done if you think about, “Okay, well, I got 25 kids, if I set up a time to listen to five a day, by the end of the week, I’ve actually got some one-on-one time with everybody involved with that.” Or we’ve talked about too, in moving to small groups or even whole group kinds of sessions. But the whole point is that you are listening, and think how proud it makes people that you are listening.

0:19:56.3 DL: That’s why I told that story about Dr. Deming, because I always felt really proud that he was really listening to what I was trying to say or explain or ask a question about.

0:20:07.9 AS: Yeah, I can’t help but add to that, that I do one-on-ones with every one of my students in the Valuation Masterclass Bootcamp. Now, it’s a 70% pass rate. So, I don’t do those until the end of the course, but people line up video meetings, and we do it virtually because it’s kind of, it’s easier. But what I have is I have a series of about eight questions that I ask them. And then what I do is I just get them on the line and I say, “Okay, let’s look at your first question I asked you, and here’s your answer.” And I read it back, and then I say, “Tell me more about that.” It’s incredible.

0:20:47.2 DL: And you have to be real quiet and listen. [laughter]

0:20:51.1 AS: Just tell me more about that. That’s all you have to do. And I think that’s what your last wrap up there just reminded me. And I think for all the listeners and the viewers out there, you know, “tell me more about that.” Well, David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I want to thank you again for this discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. Listeners can learn more about David at This is your host, Andrew Stotz, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming, “People are entitled to joy in work.”

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