Listening With Your Gut

We’ve all had those times when we just know. We can’t necessarily explain how we know, we just know something about a situation is right or not right. Spider man might say, “My Spidey Senses are Tingling.” Others may call it intuition. It’s been called “Your compass and survival coach,” and “a barometer of risk.” Some scientists are calling it your “second brain.” I call it listening with your gut. About the “gut” used in this way, the online dictionary says,

“used in reference to a feeling or reaction based on an instinctive emotional response rather than considered thought.”

We use expressions like, “butterflies in my stomach,” or “a pit in my stomach.” Something can be “gut wrenching,” We may give it a “gut check.” We may “bust a gut,” or just have a “gut feeling.” These are all ways of saying we should pay attention to how our bodies react when we listen as well as to what we can see and hear and think.

In a previous post I wrote about the difference between Empathizing and Evaluating when you listen. Listening with your gut is what can signal you when you need to employ Evaluative listening.

The great grandfather of evaluative listening was Aristotle1. His famous Poetics established the basic components of rhetorical persuasion that we still use thousands of years later. His formula was that a persuasive message is a blend of ethos (the speaker’s credibility), logos (the logic of the argument), and pathos (its emotional force).


Ethos is a combination of initial credibility, what we know or believe about the speaker to begin with, and derived credibility, the impression s/he generates during their presentation. Take time before you listen to review what you know about the speaker. What are their credentials, their character, what have you heard or observed about them? Then, use critical skills while you’re listening to derive a fuller picture of their credibility:

  • Does s/he present a trustworthy impression?
  • Does s/he cite valid experience and credible sources?
  • Does s/he present pertinent facts and logical arguments?
  • Does the speaker know the topic and the audience and address them dynamically?

Trustworthiness, expertise, dynamism, these factors form our impression of a speaker’s credibility. The effect of a message is determined by our impression of who the speaker is, what s/he knows and how s/he presents it. Smart persuaders try to establish a strong personal connection with their audience. They know you’ll be more influenced by someone you perceive to be similar to you in some important way. As you listen critically for signs of credibility, notice whether the speaker is making an effort to show that she is a lot like you.


Pathos, emotional appeal, is a favorite device of politicians and propagandists, high tech ad agencies and hard-sell hucksters. Common emotional appeals include such popular propaganda tricks such as name calling and card stacking (presenting only those facts that support your argument), generalities and jumping on the band wagon.

Another popular trick of the persuasion trade is the testimonial. Be on guard against testimonials that sell with celebrities. We may admire a baseball player’s batting average but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about stock dividends or salad dressing.

Masters of persuasion promise to satisfy our most basic human needs as described by Abraham Maslow: bottom line physical needs followed by emotional needs for security and belonging, self-esteem and what Maslow called self-actualization.

Savvy salesmen know how to obscure the facts with appeals to our feelings and deepest needs. Critically listen for peaks of strong feelings or loaded words.

  • Pathos plays on our desires for security or adventure
  • Inspires our urges to create or destroy
  • Offers to fulfill our needs for communal belonging and personal pride
  • Promises pleasure of threatens physical pain

Emotional persuaders invoke images to provoke a sense of power or pity, anger or love, fear or loyalty, reverence or revulsion. If you’d like help in developing your critical listening skills, look no further than your TV set. Television offers 20 – 30 practice opportunities every hour, commercials. Aristotle might call this pathetic persuasion. Pay attention to how these effect you.


Now analyze the Logos of an argument. Evaluative listeners focus on separating fact from opinion and examine conclusions that sound valid to see if they’re really based on true premises.When you listen critically try to discern if the speaker uses logical fallacies. For example,

  • Non sequitur (it doesn’t follow), “All elephants are grey that’s why they all like peanuts.
  • Ad homonym (against the man), assaults an idea by attacking the person who presents it.
  • Ad pabulum (appeal to the people) focuses on the audience instead of the issue by saying it’s true because most people believe it.
  • Ad ignorantium (appeal to ignorance) claims something is true because no one can disprove it. Assumes his point is true unless proven false.
  • Post hoc ergo proctor hoc (after therefore because of), a false cause and effect relationship. “I’ve had lousy luck since I broke that mirror last week.”

Evaluative listening is the opposite of empathetic listening. Instead of withholding judgment, a critical listener judges everything. Don’t get so involved in criticizing that you stop listening. Note your questions and objections but don’t raise them until you’ve heard the speakers whole argument.

1 “Listening to Win,” Audio series, by Leil Lowndes

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