How To Be An Active Listener

By | 06/06/2015
DSC_0205 by MissileMist

Early in my career, I worked as an auto mechanic while I attended college. As part of the job, I had to learn how to listen–not only to the customer, but their car as well. When a customer brought their car into our repair facility because with a noise, it was my job to listen, diagnose, and repair the problem. So when I heard the sound of rocks tumbling in the hubcap on a front-wheel drive car (defective front axle CV joint), a high-pitched squeal emanating from the tires (worn brake pads), or a squealing noise when the customer turned the steering wheel (defective power steering pump), I knew what was wrong, explained the problem to the customer, and then repaired the problem in a timely manner so they can move on with their life.

“Something Doesn’t Sound Right”

One morning when I was working on a customer’s car in the shop, I heard a noise that didn’t sound right. I walked outside to the parking lot and heard an engine backfiring in the distance. I looked up and down the street, but I didn’t see anything unusual. As I focused on the noise, I saw a twin-engine plane climbing into the sky from John Wayne Airport about a mile away from our shop.

As I stood there wiping my hands in a shop rag, I heard the plane’s engines backfire as it climbed over the nearby community. A few seconds later, the plane began to bank left and head back towards the airport. Its engines continued to backfire, and then smoke started to emanate from one of its engines. By this time, my boss saw me and met me in the parking lot.

“Hey…what’s up?” he asked.

“Can you hear that?” I asked. I pointed to the plane off in the distance with a trail of smoke behind it.

“Yeah, I can. It looks like its heading back to the airport. Something doesn’t sound right.”

It Wasn’t A Movie

As I watched the plane continue to turn back towards the airport, it suddenly stopped turning and headed towards our shop in a steep descent. Our shop was also a service station, and there was a tanker truck parked in the parking lot unloading gas into our underground tanks. I kept thinking to myself, “He’s going to make it back to the airport. Don’t worry.” But the plane continued its course and descent towards our shop.

A few seconds later, the plane drop its landing gear, then one of its engines stopped. I turned to my boss and yelled, “Get out of here!” and ran to a park across the street. As I crossed the street, I heard the plane’s remaining engine stop.

After I was a safe distance from our shop, I looked up and saw the plane pass overhead and the image of someone seated next to a window above the left wing. I stopped and watched in horror as the plane flew over the shop, skimmed the roof of the adjacent grocery store, and slammed into the tennis courts at the adjacent tennis club. The plane burst into flames and a cloud of fire and smoke rose from the tennis courts into the morning sky. Everyone on board was killed in the crash.

The local newspaper reported that the plane–a Piper Aerostar–had a history of engine-failure accidents during takeoffs. But the pilot was heralded as a hero because he nosedived the plane into the tennis courts, avoiding the nearby homes. About 20 people at the tennis club were treated for shock, but no one on the ground was injured.

“Maybe I’m An Active Listener”

When I returned to the shop, my boss was still standing in the parking lot in shock.

“How were you able to hear that plane in the shop?” he asked. “The airport is at least a mile away.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’m an active listener.”

Today, I’m still diagnosing cars when I’m driving around town. At a stop light, I still hear those bad CV joints, brake pad sensors, and power steering pumps pull up next to me. And when I hear an engine sputtering and backfiring, I immediately take notice. But in the business world where I work today, I listen “between the lines” in my daily conversations with people. In the process, I became an active listener.

Becoming An Active Listener

My experience that day and throughout my automotive career taught me three things about how to be an active listener:

  1. Pay attention.  To repair a customer’s car, I had to listen and understand the problem. If I heard something out of the ordinary, I took notice. When you talk with friends and people you meet during the day, listen to understand. When people speak to you, don’t formulate a response while they’re speaking. Wait until they are finished speaking so you can respond appropriately. If you are in a meeting with someone, take notes. That shows you’re listening and shows some respect to the speaker.
  2. Listen to what isn’t said.  The sputtering engines had me concerned. But when smoke began to emanate from the plane’s engines, I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t “hear” the smoke, I had to see it. Sometimes when we talk to people, their body language speaks louder than their words. Listen with your eyes to what other people are saying to you. What they don’t say may in fact be the actual conversation.
  3. Respond appropriately.  When I saw that the plane was heading in my direction, I took off running to avoid the pending crash. Likewise, respond to what is said by asking questions to clarify things you didn’t understand. This shows the other person that you are actively listening and trying to understand their viewpoint.

And when you’re outside and hear an engine backfire or misfire, be sure to look in all directions–including up.

Photo: DSC_0205 by MissileMist on Flickr.