Don’t Ask If You Can’t Listen

Earlier this week I received a phone call from a friend and colleague. We are always both very busy and we usually acknowledge this with quick, graceful phone calls that respect each other’s hectic schedules.

But this call arrived moments after I finished a difficult project, when I was enjoying a few moments of relief. In other words, I wasn’t rushed when I answered his call.

He spoke in his usual cheerful, busy tone so we focused on the specific reasons for the call, dealt with them quickly and began to “wrap up”, summarizing the conversation and moving towards “goodbye”.

Then suddenly he asked me a BIG question. It was both personal and professional, totally in keeping with our relationship. I was delighted he asked and … because I wasn’t rushed, I started to give the BIG answer, an answer that was an invitation to a more in-depth conversation.

He couldn’t receive my answer. His response told me that he didn’’t even hear my answer – that he’d already moved on to the next item on his ever-present “to do” list.

We ended the call, but I wasn’t happy. It felt as if the question was disingenuous (which, based on our relationship, I know it wasn’t) and it felt rude, like a slammed door.

So why did it happen?

Well, I have to admit that I’ve done this myself although it has taken several days of thought to realize it. And now that I’ve experienced it so clearly, I’m going to work hard to not let it happen again.

Here’s the scenario:

You are speaking on the phone to someone with whom you have a close relationship. You are really, really busy – they are not as busy. You move through the conversation and you can “hear” that they are open to conversation, to catching up, to having a more leisurely chat.

But you can’t do it. In the next 20 minutes you are hoping to complete X, Y and hopefully Z.

But you also don’t want to offend your friend by your busyness.

So you send them a signal. You ask them a BIG question, that let’s them know you do care, are interested, want to talk to them.

And then … you don’t listen to the answer because X, Y and hopefully Z are still waiting to be done. So you reply to their answer with something standard and non-committal like “Well that’s good to hear.”  – and you end the call.

While this makes sense to you at the time, it doesn’t translate at all at the other end of the phone line. In fact it feels really, really bad. Definitely a behaviour we should all watch out for as we continue to juggle busy schedules while staying in touch with family and friends.

One more tidbit to share this week – prompted by my friend Linda Daley at Daley Progress, who celebrated publishing her 50th newsletter this week.

The Phone Lady is 7 clients away from having served 250 clients. I think that is so … cool! To celebrate, I’d like to honour that 250th client in some way. How should I do this?

Happy dialing everyone!

0 thoughts on “Don’t Ask If You Can’t Listen”

  1. Wow, I know I am so guilty of this. And I’m guilty of missing signals. Maybe that’s why I find the phone challenging – there’s less info to detect those signals. And what’s with signals anyway? Can’t we just say it plain instead of sending signals that can be misconstrued? (she says like a true extrovert)

    Great milestone… coming up on 250 clients! I think you shouldn’t treat a new customer any better than you treat an old. So once you reach 250 have a draw among them all. Maybe one big prize or several small ones. You could give them all one free entry… they have to write down one thing they learned from The Phone Lady to enter. (you did ask!)

    • Hmmm – lots of good stuff here, Linda. I do like the idea of reaching out to all 250 clients. After all, I wouldn’t be reaching 250 without the first, second, third, etc. And I like your musings on signals. There’s a blog in there!

  2. You say you are almost to your mark of 250 clients that you have helped;
    but don’t forget all us nameless people who learn from your blog daily.
    You have helped far more than 250 !
    Keep up the great work, love reading your blog. Always hits home! Great tips!

    • Wow Stephanie! Now that is a marvelous message to receive. Hard to express how I feel reading your words. So so so good to know that my blog is helpful to you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wonderful Mary Jane, excellent article regarding “Don’t ask if you can’t listen”… as I begin each of your articles, I think “oh no, I do that”… as I end each article, I think “oh great idea(s), of course, I should do that”… and I practice and practice – so, thank you! I appreciate being one of your many hundreds!

    • Thank you, Brian. As I’ve already shared with you … this blog was about you! And I’m so pleased this happened because it is something I know I do on the phone. It was great to have the opportunity to “watch” how it works and have the inspiration to write this post.


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What's The Phone Lady doing?


  • Remote learning experiences + one-on-one coaching for women entrepreneurs (More info about this three-year program here.)
  • Team and individual coaching with a national moving company to refine their sales process
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  • Remote seven-part sales training program for US-based SaaS
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  • Remote webinar on validation to college students in entrepreneur program
  • In-person workshop on job search skills for women in the trades
  • Remote half-day webinar on written correspondence to customers

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