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Stop! The Cup is Full – No More Will Go In! – Guest, Ian Blei

By September 12, 2017December 28th, 2019No Comments
monk contemplating life with a large monastery in the distance, expansive and gorgeous scenery, demonstrating the importance of listening and keeping your tea cup empty

Virtually every “Improve Communication” thesis I’ve read or presentation I’ve seen, deals in great depth with how to transmit what you want to say. They talk about your tone, projection, and even address the content. Along with this, is the almost-afterthought you should also be good at listening. And how do you do that? There is actually much more to it than merely waiting for the other person to stop talking before you talk.

What should you listen for, and what should you do when you hear it? Are there, in fact, cues in what the other person is saying that can help you to truly “get” them?


In my “Optimize Your Communications” seminars, we talk about the verbal cues hiding throughout people’s speech, telling you much more than just the words alone. If we’re paying attention, when we hear these cues, we can use this information to help us understand where the other person is coming from, which gives us incredible context for their words.

Without this process of active listening, we tend to plug in our own context for their words, which can make them sound selfish and unthinking. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, and unfortunately, this is where others may form inaccurate impressions from “half-listening” to you.

You Must First Empty Your “Cup”

There is an old story I’ll shorten drastically for our point here about a professor visiting Zen Master Nan-in. The Master Nan-in filled the professor’s tea cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched it overflow until he could restrain himself no longer. “Stop! The cup is full, no more will go in.” To which Master Nan-in said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

One of the easiest and most powerful things you can do when listening to someone, is to start with an empty cup.

Merely by ridding yourself of assumptions and projections about what they are going to say or why, you open the space for their words to have their own meaning.

We can steer ourselves wrong on the level of semantics alone, not even going into subtext. We all have our own definitions and relationships to words like integrity, friendship, loyalty, information, love, commitment, and so on. For me to assume you mean the same thing I do when talking about this sort of thing would be fast, easy, and probably dead wrong. I better check in with you to hear what you mean (I’m keeping my cup empty).

When it comes to subtext, we really need to give people room. This is where recognizing your own operating system or lens type (how you take in and process the world around you) can help you differentiate and delineate what’s going on inside you, from what may be going on inside the person speaking to you. Understanding their operating system and yours will take communication to new heights.

Observe Cues and Patterns for Effective Listening

There are many verbal cues that fit within patterns of how people process. The faster someone talks, the less likely they’re interested in details, and the more likely they’re somewhat visual in their way of processing. Do they say “I see what you mean?” or “I hear you?”

The slower someone talks, the more likely they’re interested in details, issues of safety or security, and potentially process on a more kinesthetic level. They might say, “I get it.”

The patterns these cues illuminate give you information about how to adjust your speech to reach them. One cue would be if the person tends to say “I feel” or “I know” before statements. This would give you the information they are more likely motivated by aspiring toward an ideal than avoiding pain.

If they were to use “I think” before statements, it would give you the information they’re more likely motivated by avoiding pain, fear, or anxiety than aspiring to an ideal.

Of course, this isn’t all or nothing. It is a leaning or tendency. If you hear me using “I feel” or “I know,” then you’d know to adjust accordingly. “You’ll look impressive in this car.” The more you hear me saying “I think,” then you’d adjust to tell me how “safe I’ll be in this car.”

Listening is an active skill

Listening is an active skill. When you’re doing it right, you can’t possibly be planning what you are about to say when the other person pauses. You must pay attention to them fully.

This brings us to an old concept for doing it right in carpentry:  measure twice, cut once. It may appear slower. Not having to fix things afterward saves much, much more than just simply your time.

Ian Blei
Founder, Optimized Results


Photography Source:  Pixabay

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