Kin Hubbard

“A good listener is usually thinking of something else.”

 Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard.

Kin_Hubbard_2Some people have a knack for capturing truth in just a few words—“Kin” Hubbard was one of those people. Born in 1868, Hubbard was slow to discover his life’s calling. By chance, he landed a job with the Indianapolis News doing humorous sketches in 1891. Though funny, his drawings were crude and unsophisticated. When a new editor expressed a desire for a real artist, Hubbard quit and spent the next several years wandering the south while perfecting his craft. Invited back to the News in 1901, Hubbard earned a reputation as a first-rate political caricaturist. Then, just before Christmas in 1904, Hubbard introduced a new kind of cartoon to his readers. The format was simple—a single panel illustration with two unrelated lines of text. It featured Abe Martin, a rustic country philosopher who in lieu of working spent all his time conjuring clever observations on the human condition. The daily cartoon was an immediate hit and in time Abe Martin was syndicated nationwide. When Hubbard died in 1930, Will Rogers, speaking for all humorists, said, “No man in our generation was within a mile of him…just think—only two lines a day, yet he expressed more original philosophy in ‘em than in all the rest of the paper combined.”

The “country wisdom” about listening is a case in point. It seems when people appear to be listening, they’re often thinking about what they want to say next. This is particularly true in fast-moving or emotional discussions. Since not everyone can talk at once (except on cable news programs) someone who has an idea, will hold on to it in their mind for fear they’ll forget it. If they can’t speak immediately, they tend to mull their idea over and improve upon it while others are doing the talking. Naturally, if you’re busy thinking about what you want to say, you aren’t hearing what somebody else is actually saying. It follows, if you don’t know what’s been said, you’re going to have a hard time responding or adding to any other ideas.

Unfortunately, when folks are engaged in this mental rehearsing, they aren’t typically aware of it. That’s why in meetings someone will blurt out a comment that has nothing to do with the current topic, but with one that was discussed fifteen minutes earlier. Or someone will later swear that a subject was never broached when the rest of the team knows that unlike the proverbial dead horse, the subject was, in fact, beaten long after death.

This isn’t an easy problem to fix because most adults have learned to act like they’re deeply engaged in a discussion when they patently aren’t. If you’re just talking sports with your friends it probably doesn’t make much difference, but if you’re trying to get a decision made at work, it can be a real problem. Leaders have two techniques that can help. First, make sure everyone comes to the discussion prepared. If people have thought through the subject in advance, they are less likely to spend discussion time rehearsing their thoughts. Secondly, check in with everyone as the meeting progresses. Don’t move on until you’ve heard from everybody. And remember too, as Abe Martin put it, “the only way to entertain some folks is to listen to them.” Really listen, that is.         —Ebert

Leave a Reply