At work, leaders direct, and sometimes detour. Managers brief, though more are lengthy. Emails pile, syncs catch up, Slack scrolls on. Words on tired words.

We listen to most, but hear just a part, absorb less than we’d like, and miss more than we know.

I’ve seen weeks of work wasted from reading an email in haste and not checking assumptions in time. Probably you’ve seen the same.

Opportunities wasted too – sometimes when an inner voice speaks more convincingly than the evidence of one’s ears:

A government department wanted to better manage and distribute information. A consultant and a salesperson were dispatched, to see where their agency could advise.

The government team behind the information talked through pains and aspirations. The pair from the agency nodded, describing methods, successes, and a package to kick things off. The agency had some tech too, that could be useful later, and this was mentioned briefly, though the team explained politely that they were not interested, they had other ideas. But to most in the room, the consulting was interesting and, towards the end, next steps were taking shape.

And then, the salesperson spoke about the tech again. He felt it would help. He knew the team would like it. Ignoring their growingly strained faces, he listed features and pushed for a demo. Perhaps the customer’s voice was drowned by the call of recurring revenue.

As laptops were folded, not much was said, but the head of department summed it up with: “thank you so much for laying out your wares”. Like street traders with a tray of plastic, blinking toys.

HK street stall, from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The next day, when the agency got in touch, a team member civilly said that they’d decided to look elsewhere. It must have seemed as though the consulting, the main reason for the meeting, was bait being switched. Could the agency’s tech product have helped them? Maybe, alongside careful planning and changed processes. But there was never a chance to find out, because the salesperson had been too hasty to push what he thought was right, without listening. The opportunity, though just a seed, was burned.

In meetings like this, our fear of not not getting our point across or of what others will think, drowns out the important message we should be listening to.

If people’s actual words get drowned by our busyness and inner conversations, how much more do we miss the words they don’t say or write? All the time, people – colleagues, bosses, competitors – bury their concerns in plain sight, but we’re too caught up to notice.

In an email, what does this factual phrase mean: “X said you had to approve the decision, but I’m sure they misunderstood”? In context, that could very well mean that the writer thinks we’re micromanaging. But if we skim through, we’ll miss that nuance and risk creating resentment unnecessarily.

We need a better feel for the real situations behind communications. We need some true insight, in the classical sense. That term, per Merriam Webster, refers to “apprehending the inner nature of things or … seeing intuitively”.

The term is overused now, and “insights” can mean a dashboard or something you buy from an analyst. Rich data that, unless digested, passes through without disturbing anything’s inner nature.

But real intuition is out there, we just have to work for it. To be precise, we have to pay for it. We pay not with a purchase order but with an effort; not currency but attention. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in “The Organized Mind“:

Attention has a cost. It is a this-or-that, zero-sum game. We pay attention to one thing, either through conscious decision or because our attentional filter deemed it important enough to push it to the forefront of attentional focus. When we pay attention to one thing, we are necessarily taking attention away from something else.

Paying attention to a message, we commit to dealing with it and temporarily ignoring others. The cost is to our sense of day trading the stock of information, juggling incoming text and ongoing meetings, feeling in control but actually oscillating from one context to another.

By paying more attention to important signals, we can understand them better, and glimpse their unsaid meanings too. But we’ll have to slow down – to hold our nerve like a value investor, or patiently wait as if with a passive index. Statistically, we’ll do better that way, but we’ll feel as if chances are passing us by. They probably aren’t! And by listening carefully to “text and subtext”, we can open more opportunity.

A manufacturer wanted to save time preparing their technical content. As they described to a salesperson the problems they were trying to solve, she heard something beyond what they stated.

The team writing the content said that because it was so hard to check and maintain, it reached its consumers of engineers and local area representatives too slowly. Someone said “not that they’re happy when it gets to them”. The team resented their audience’s grumbling, as they saw it, given that they were working so hard. Almost like a counsellor, the salesperson elicited from the team that the content itself wasn’t perfect – the audience struggled to find a path through the various documents affecting their roles. But there had been no time to think about this in the daily battles for accurate information.

The salesperson started to bounce ideas off the content team. Were they open to a better way to serve it up? What if it could be recombined via new mapping and linking techniques? Would the organization see the value? Apparently it could, because the sponsor signed up for a more comprehensive solution than they had thought they needed. Within a year, they had happier, more productive content consumers, as well as the more efficient content creation they sought initially.

Often, we're passing through situations while always thinking about the next thing, or someone else's thing, rather than the thing that's right in front of us. We miss out then. We don't pick up the signs of the emotions and thoughts of the people we're with, or the words that we're reading. So breathe out, and be here. Let yourself rest from all the other things you could be thinking or doing, and then pay attention. It's good for work, good for business, probably good for life.

(Adapted from a post at