Are You a Reader or a Listener?

A career-defining question even presidents forget to answer

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Right now, there is a journalist sitting on a panel somewhere, getting pummeled with audience questions. Unlike the panel’s discussion topics, he did not receive the questions on paper beforehand, and so he is utterly unprepared, stumbling from “umm” to “uhhh” and from poorly worded expression to hastily assembled phrase.

Meanwhile, his counterpart sits in an office, poring over a well-executed but scientifically demanding report on global warming. If only the undersecretary could explain it to her while she asked for some clarifications! With the document as her only counsel, she stands little chance of making the right decision.

If you don’t want to end up as either one of the two, according to Peter Drucker, you must answer a simple yet career-defining question: “Am I a reader or a listener?”

“A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

This is Peter Drucker’s thesis of great work: Focus on your strengths. Managing yourself around your talents will allow you to progress quickly, to achieve big outcomes, and to go where you can make the most meaningful contribution.

Drucker is considered “the founder of modern management.” While many of his ideas transformed the world of business, Drucker’s genius ultimately lay in translating the principles of philosophy and psychology for the workplace — self-improvement for the office, if you will.

That’s why today, his books are required reading for many, chief among them his seminal 1999 essay turned 70-page book, Managing Oneself. In this short manual to quickly mapping your inner workings, Drucker lays out a series of questions, such as “What are my values?” “Where do I belong?” and, yes, “What are my strengths?” — along with some rope to help you find answers.

For knowledge workers, the most important of those questions, Drucker says, is “How do I perform?” — and it starts with determining whether you’re a reader or a listener.

Today, we like to pretend different ways of consuming information all lead to the same end, but they don’t. Reading and listening, for example, are two fundamentally different modes of learning.

Listening is a more social experience. You can glean emotions from intonation and find many hints about culture in pronunciation, dialect, and so on. You also can’t rewind the conversation, so you tend to focus on extracting the most important points. If you ask creative follow-up questions and the speaker phrases the same idea in multiple ways, that might boost your retention.

Reading is a standalone activity, but it tends to create stronger memories because your brain needs to fill in many gaps listening pre-populates. What do the voices sound like? How do you imagine the scene? Instead of follow-up questions, reading uses back-tracking eye movements, which you make 10–15% of the time, to maximize retention. Turning pages is a built-in break, giving you time to process what you’ve read. Reading also provides structural cues from punctuation, and physical books give you a spatial sense of “where you are” at all times, both of which further improve your memory.

The biggest difference, however, is that listening suggests the possibility of multitasking, whereas reading makes it clear that multitasking doesn’t exist. Psychologists call it “task switching,” and even though it might take only a fraction of a second, it still is a shift in attention, not a parallel stream.

Nevertheless, as you can probably tell from your day-to-day life, listening still works when you do it passively. You can let the information run over you like a waterfall, and your subconscious will relatively reliably point out the most relevant bits as they pass by, saving them for future reference.

Reading, on the other hand, requires more — and constant — attention. It is entirely active, like a treasure hunt, and if you get distracted, you must start back where you left off. You’d never try to drive or fold laundry while reading, and if you try listening to music with lyrics, you’ll probably have to re-read the same lines over and over.

Whether listening actually hands itself more to task switching than reading or not, the point is: Reading and listening are different — and you probably only have a knack for one of the two.

In the book, Drucker gives two examples of the perils of not knowing whether you are a reader or a listener. The first is US president Dwight Eisenhower. When Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces in WWII, the press loved him:

His press conferences were famous for their style — General Eisenhower showed total command of whatever question he was asked, and he was able to describe a situation and explain a policy in two or three beautifully polished and elegant sentences.

A few years later when he was president, however, the same journalists who had liked him before now complained about his interview style. He never addressed the questions, they lamented. Eisenhower seemed to ramble without direction and gave incomprehensible, grammatically false answers.

Eisenhower apparently did not know that he was a reader, not a listener. When he was Supreme Commander in Europe, his aides made sure that every question from the press was presented in writing at least half an hour before a conference was to begin. And then Eisenhower was in total command.

As a president, however, Eisenhower followed in the footsteps of two listeners, Roosevelt and Truman, and — probably unknowingly — maintained their open press conference style, a style which did not play to his strengths.

Just like the panelist overwhelmed with spontaneous audience questions, the reader forcing herself to be a listener will never catch the essence of what is being said as perfectly as she would when engaging with the topic in written form.

If you are a reader, make sure you always have things to read. Educate people to provide you with written materials, and always read up on what you’ve received only in conversation. Use reading to prepare and to revise, and never let your lack of listening skill catch you off guard by making listening the only skill you rely on.

Of course, the opposite also applies.

Drucker’s second example is president Lyndon Johnson, who, while not a reader like Eisenhower, was equally unaware of his performance style:

Lyndon Johnson destroyed his presidency, in large measure, by not knowing that he was a listener. His predecessor, John Kennedy, was a reader who had assembled a brilliant group of writers as his assistants, making sure that they wrote to him before discussing their memos in person. Johnson kept these people on his staff — and they kept on writing. He never, apparently, understood one word of what they wrote. Yet as a senator, Johnson had been superb; for parliamentarians have to be, above all, listeners.

Listeners thrive on interaction and spontaneity. They love hearing multiple angles until one clicks, and that’s when the words magically roll off their tongue in response. A good listener’s attention is wasted crumbling over stacks of paper.

If you are a listener, go where you can listen. Don’t stick your nose into books when sticking it into a conference room will do. Set up meetings. Orchestrate them. Make room for impromptu interactions, and maximize the number of imaginative sparks flying through your organization. Listen always and everywhere, ask people to explain their writings, and never feel ashamed to ask what a written sentence means.

Few listeners will ever turn themselves into good readers, just like few readers will ever become adept at listening — but neither will have to if they prioritize their strengths.

As useful as Drucker’s questions are to being productive and accomplishing big feats, ultimately, they serve an even bigger purpose: “We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.”

A great listener must not be locked in a dimly lit office, and a great reader shouldn’t be forced to leave her desk.

When it comes to your contribution in the workplace, knowing yourself is about determining on which stage you belong. You want to show up not just where you can survive but where you can shine.

Every failure offers a lesson, but that doesn’t make setting ourselves up for it a smart thing to do. We must play to our strengths whenever we can, because only when we use our strengths can we actually make a difference.

If you’re a listener, don’t let your coworkers drown you in complex reports. If you’re a reader, don’t lightly agree to free-for-all press conferences. And if you don’t know which one you are, take some time to find out. After all…

“Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person — hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre — into an outstanding performer.”

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