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Barrier Six: Listening for the Forest and the Trees

A common saying refers to an inability “to see the forest for the trees”. Sometimes, people pay such close attention to detail that they miss the overall meaning or context of a situation. They might explain a complex situation just by naming or describing its characteristics. This detail is only important if one understands the “forest”.

The reverse can be true as well. Forest people tend to focus on a sweeping, abstract, bird’s-eye view. They do not like to get into the details. Forest people tend to think in terms of concepts and ideas, but sometimes those concepts are not easily conveyed and their listeners get lost. This is a common dichotomy in the way entrepreneurs or visionaries differ from managers. The former envisions the possibility and the latter implements all the details to make it work.

“Tree” people commonly accuse “forest” people of going off on tangents or speaking in unwarranted generalities. “Forest” people commonly feel that “tree” people are too narrow and literal. Good explanations usually involve both types of messaging, with the big-picture “forest” view providing context and overall meaning, and the specific “tree” view providing illuminating examples. An important note here – are you a “tree” person or a “forest” person?

If you’re a “tree” person speaking to a “forest” person or vice versa, an effective approach is to encourage the other person to supply missing context or examples by asking him open-ended questions. For example, “Can you give me a concrete example of that?” is less likely to cause confusion or disagreement than a more closed-ended question such as, “Would such-and-such be an example of what you’re talking about?”

If the speaker is trying to communicate complex information to a diverse group of “forest and tree” people, she may shift between the conceptual and the details to show how the details fit into the big picture. However, speakers often forget to use “turn indicators” to signal that they are shifting from one to another, which can cause confusion or misunderstanding for the listener.