Tautology and the Art of Listening

By Gary Wickert | September 6, 2018

We only hear half of what we listen to. Perhaps that is why most people instinctively use tautology when they write or speak. Tautology is the use of different words to say the same thing or repeating the same thing twice, often in the same sentence, using different words. Most people don’t even know that they’re doing it. Tautology clutters otherwise simple communication. Insurance and subrogation claims professionals communicate for a living and should be aware of one of the most common mistakes made in professional and interpersonal communication.

Mark Twain made entertaining and sarcastic use of tautology. His most famous example is “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” A tautology is usually considered an undesirable flaw in communication; an unnecessary waste of time and words. Perhaps some of you caught the tautology in the preceding sentence. They make you sound wordier than you need to be. In most cases, a tautology involves just a few words that mean the same thing. For example, “I went to see him personally” contains an extra and unnecessary word because the adverb “personally” repeats the idea already expressed in the single word “I”. However, a tautology occasionally helps to add emphasis or clarity, or introduce intentional ambiguity. Adding the word “personally” might be intended to emphasize that the speaker’s action in going to see him is most unusual and significant in and of itself. However, usually it’s best to choose just one way to state your meaning and eliminate the extra words.

Tautology does not diminish clarity, but it should be avoided in formal writing and speaking so you don’t say the same thing over and over repetitively. Did you catch that tautology? Phrases such as “a new innovation”, “the evening sunset”, “hot water heater”, or “frozen ice” are good examples. Hearing something “with our own ears” is the only possible way to hear something. Over-exaggerating is redundant. So is a hoagie sandwich, a short summary, dilapidated ruins, predictions about the future, close proximity, 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon, and a “necessary requirement.”

Tautology is pervasive in our culture, and even professional speakers, politicians, and writers allow tautology to slip into their work. President George W. Bush famously said, “Our nation must come together to unite.” The Beatles lyrics were, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”, and it was Kiss who sang, “Shout it, shout it, shout it out loud!” Motivational speakers often create pointless, but nice-sounding tautologies, repeating inspirational lines that have no defendable basis in fact. Symmetrical limericks such as, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” illustrate my point. Little dogs might make a lot of noise, but they won’t fare well in a fight with a much larger dog regardless of how symmetrical the sentence may sound. “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know”, is a nice-sounding tautology, but despite its pithy-sounding wisdom, the truth is that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know—it’s who knows you.

Tautology infects science and technology as well. Consider some terms: DVD disc, GPS system, HIV virus, ISBN number, PIN number, please R.S.V.P., and V.I.N. number. Advertisers also repeat themselves. Enjoy your “added bonus”, “prepay in advance”, and “giving away free tickets” are examples. We unnecessarily add words when they aren’t needed. Did you catch that tautology? They are so pervasive that they often slide by without notice. Twice is once too much.

The unfettered use of tautology in speech and writing is perhaps related to the root cause for filler words like “Um.” We’ve been conditioned to answer questions immediately from an early age. Perhaps this is because we felt we needed to respond to our parents quickly, either out of respect or fearing reprisal. The result is that we abhor a vacuum and fill in verbal blanks while speaking with “um” while we are trying to think of the next thing to say. This verbal thinking isn’t very flattering to the listener. I tell young lawyers that good advocacy makes effective use of the much-underrated pause. How not to use a word is as important as choosing the right word to use. Abraham Lincoln famously told his cabinet about the preacher who said, “I could write shorter sermons, but once I start I get too lazy to stop.”

There are times when the use of tautology is helpful to emphasize a point or to add poetic flair to the written or spoken word. Most frequently, however, a tautology doesn’t add new information to a statement and merely burdens the listener. Because we hear only half of what we listen to, if you double the words needed to communicate effectively, it only seems natural that the listener will tune out half the words he or she hears.

American business is learning that it is tied together by its systems of communication. We are discovering that this communication depends more on the spoken word than it does on the written word; and the effectiveness of the spoken word hinges not so much on how people talk as on how they listen. Our ears function just fine; it is our brain that hasn’t mastered the necessary aural skills needed to allow those ears to be used effectively. Catch that tautology?

A University of Minnesota study concluded that immediately after the average person has listened to someone talk, he or she remembers only half of what has been said—no matter how carefully he or she listened. Within eight hours we have forgotten half of what we remembered. Classic education teaches reading, but places little emphasis on speaking, and none on listening. Our teachers yell, “Open your ears” or “Pay attention”, but that is a poor substitute for teaching students to listen. We assume that bright students listen and those who don’t are unintelligent. To be good listeners we must apply certain skills acquired only through either experience or training.

Educators are beginning to realize that listening is a skill that can be taught. In Nashville, schools have started training in listening from elementary grades through high school. At the University of Minnesota, they offer a course in listening to a large segment of the freshman class. I’d wager that widespread inability to listen is also at the root of much of the political incivility that has infected our country. Most of us don’t listen well. Or, if we manage to listen, we are often just waiting until the other person finishes so we can say what is on OUR mind. And that’s not really listening. If we all took the time to learn the art of listening, we could avoid tautology and say half as much as we feel the need to. That means we’d all be done with everything twice as fast.

An entomologist was walking down a busy city street with a friend. In the midst of the honking horns and screeching tires, he exclaimed to his friend, “Listen to that cricket!” The friend looked at the entomologist in astonishment and said, “You hear a cricket in the middle of all this noise and confusion?” Without a word, the entomologist reached into his pocket, took out a coin, and flipped it into the air. As it clinked on the sidewalk, a dozen heads turned in response. The entomologist said quietly to his friend, “We hear what we listen for.”

Subrogation claims professionals take statements, interview insureds, investigate losses, listen to accident narratives, and bring important information from the outside world into a subrogation claim file. Day after day, we miss important information because we don’t listen, and we misunderstand and misinterpret messages and narratives because of our preconceptions, biases, and ideas about how things happen. Minor miscues in communication can have major financial repercussions in a single subrogation claim file. One of the most important tools of any lawyer during cross-examination is the ability to simply sit quietly and look at the witness—who instantly will feel the pressure to continue talking and divulge more information.

There are simple things you can work on to aid in developing a keen talent for listening. Avoid pre-judging a speaker or a situation too early. Resist the temptation to monopolize a conversation. We all like to hear ourselves talk. Enjoy listening instead. Don’t feign attention or interest. Even if the subject isn’t instantly of interest, remain alert and maintain eye contact. Occasional comments injected into a conversation—such as “Really?” or “That’s interesting” will reassure and motivate the speaker. Listen for ideas and facts. When a witness or an insured is relaying a list of items, many of us begin absorbing and digesting the first point, trying to memorize it, all while point number two is being explained. The third point is missed altogether and may be the most important point of all. Instead of becoming mired in the fragments, try to understand the bigger picture—what the facts add up to by relating them to each other and seeing what key ideas bind them together. Another tautology there.

The spoken word is not the only means of communication. Be on the alert for non-verbal cues and body language. Comprehend not only what is being said, but how it is being said. There may be a big difference between the auditory cues and the behavioral cues emitted by the speaker. The verbal message may reflect sincerity and excitement about an idea, while gestures, posture, facial expressions, and tone of voice may convey something quite different. Ask powerful questions designed to increase audience interaction. No one is looking for a know-it-all in love with their own ideas and products. Don’t sell yourself; sell a relationship. It lasts longer and has a lot more to offer.

Business as usual isn’t business as usual in the service industries anymore and neither are its tautologies. Listening, not talking is the gifted and imaginative role we should be embracing. Listening is the key to managing the mood in a company. It is also an active interpretation that shapes our realities, and it’s the answer to improving employee productivity and increasing business with customers. In a world increasingly “flat” thanks to technology, customers and clients are increasingly well-informed. It’s the relationship that makes the difference.

Don’t be concerned about remaining silent during meetings and conversation. Your silence won’t be perceived as weakness. Be the one in the back of the room who doesn’t shout out the answer when the question is asked. It’s difficult, because we want others to know we’re smart. Even as you’re learning the art of listening, employ a technique that gets you to focus, to be quiet, and to listen effectively. For fans of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, consider a comparison. Silence can promote the concept that someone in a disadvantaged situation can defend against someone in a much stronger position by using proper technique. Let them talk and, whatever you do, don’t interrupt. Unless they ask you a question, there is no reason for you to speak. Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker as if you were living through the experiences being divulged to you. That is the best way to recall everything that was said.

In time, you will realize that you have developed a new skill. You will hear not only the words, but also the texture, the emotion, and the story which is unfolded behind the words. It is a skill that can be practiced—with great benefit—at home. Strive for the moment in which you can connect “behind the words” and “between the lines.” Go into meetings with existing and prospective clients with no preconceptions about the problems or the solutions you can offer them. Making a client feel “heard” can be difficult, particularly because the natural tendency of most “trained” professionals is to sell themselves, their products, and their policies. My personality is that of a hammer; and to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It took me a long time to hang up the hammer and simply listen carefully to the details of what was being expressed by clients and opposing counsel. Years ago, I would start pounding the nail before the end of the first sentence. It was rarely the perfect solution.

The advantage goes not to the business who offers lower prices, but to the one which really listens to customers and clients, understanding and taking their concerns seriously. The true listener is much more believed and magnetic than the talker. The listener is more effective, more disciplined, learns more, and does more than the talker. Remember, there is a big difference between listening and simply waiting for your turn to speak.

image of Gary Wickert

About Gary Wickert

Gary Wickert is an insurance trial lawyer and a partner with Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C., and is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on insurance subrogation. He is the author of several subrogation books and legal treatises and is a national and international speaker and lecturer on subrogation and motivational topics. He can be reached at gwickert@mwl-law.com. More from Gary Wickert

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