Listen Up

With the virtue of listening, realizing that something so human is central to something seemingly so technical is a microcosm of my personal journey as a troubleshooter. That the cold, hard world of machine problems could be undone by a soft skill like listening is not a new idea:

The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 78)

Let listening be a proxy for using all of your senses to take in information about the situation at hand. Yes, even your sense of smell will come in handy while troubleshooting—you know this if you’ve ever smelled a burnt out power supply or gas leak. You need to be open to all of the sensory information coming your way when investigating a problem. I chose to group all this under “listening” because of the special importance of words: as noted previously, this is because so many troubleshooting exercises begin with someone else’s account of the situation. As opposed to “hearing”, which to me connotes the raw sensory experience of sound, “listening” implies that some thought is applied on top of what is coming in from your ears. Each of the senses can be thought of in a similar manner: the sensory data must be combined with focused effort to be useful.

Listen, even if they don’t have much to say.
(image: Library of Congress)

You may think it contradictory to have both skepticism and listening as Virtues of the Troubleshooter. What use would a skeptical person have for listening? However, it’s not a contradiction because any doubt you have must be anchored to reality. Feel free to be skeptical of someone’s account, but make sure you’re being skeptical of what the person actually is saying. Try to cultivate an “informed skepticism” to make sure you’re resisting against something real. Put another way: it would be a failure to counter a reporter’s fantasy of a problem by making one up yourself and attributing it to them! If you want to tilt at windmills alone, there’s no surer way than to be a troubleshooter who has stopped listening. It may be funny when Cervantes wrote about it, but tragic when observed in real life.

When it comes to listening, there’s another NLP concept that is extremely helpful: “uptime.” Uptime is “tuning the senses to the outside world” and it is extremely useful for certain phases of troubleshooting. When interviewing, it means being completely present in the interaction. When investigating on-site, it means being focused externally. Doing this requires energy (especially if you’re introverted), but it’s worth it. Being inside your head at these crucial moments, you will miss so many important details. I discovered the value of uptime by the astounding number of times the key to solving a particular problem was either staring me in the face or explicitly referenced by a person reporting a problem. And, conversely, the number of times I missed it by being distracted. Now, I pay attention with laser focus.

I interviewed a very experienced auto mechanic who has 30+ years in the troubleshooting trenches. He laid out two reasons why he is such a strong believer in listening: first, the person closest to a problem will always know better than you what is “normal.” Second, listening allows you to size up someone’s personality. Dan told me the story of a car that, from his perspective, was perfectly fine. However, he listened to the client anyway:

Jason Maxham: What weight do you put on a client’s description of the problem?

Dan McCormick: A lot. They know their car better than I do. If it’s doing something different now than what it did a month ago or a year ago, something has changed. I might drive it and say, “I don’t notice anything wrong.” I’ve run into that situation: for example, this guy and I went for a test ride and I said “To me it feels fine…” and he said “No, something is different.” So, we decided we were going to dig into it and I started tearing the car apart and I found two wires that were crossed. At that point, the guy had left and I called him up and said, “Would you mind coming back and going for a ride?” I switched the two connectors around and he said “That’s it, that’s the way it used to run!” In my mind, I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong, but this guy really knew his vehicle.

Putting It All Together: Being Skeptical And Listening Carefully

Listening while guiding someone to give a useful account is a delicate balance of letting them speak, while also leading the person to tell you what you need. If you do all the talking you won’t be getting much closer to a solution, but neither should you let someone go off on an endless tangent. This is another reason why you must be in uptime during the interview process: you must maintain situational awareness to break in when the interviewee goes off-road. If you don’t maintain control, prepare to hear about life, the universe, and everything else. I think this is because people think: “Finally, someone is listening to my problems…so I’ll just keep going!” It’s funny how inquiring about a broken printer can quickly morph into a free-range discussion about management’s lack of vision, the absence of meaningful choices in the break-room vending machines, and the “girl that got away.” Some people don’t get a chance to vent very often and will relish your bent ear, while others simply love spinning a good yarn. You must be “up above it” (guiding the conversation by cutting short unnecessary threads) and “down in it” (actively listening and soaking up the critical details being thrown your way).


  • Header image: Bain News Service, P. Listening to Records. ca. 1920-1925. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
  • Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour, Introducing NLP (London: Thorsons/HarperCollins, 1990), pg. 111.
  • Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey (New York: HarperCollins: 1999), verse 78.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close