How Much do You Hear When You Are in Listening Mode?

By Rick Draker

You may have noticed that we have one mouth, two ears.  Whatever higher power you might believe in perhaps realized that listening was more difficult than talking, so we have two ears.  The fact that we also have two eyes with which we can communicate is fodder for a mini-tome some other time.

You may also have noticed that with some people having two ears will never be more than a way of keeping their heads balanced on their shoulders!

listening300Listening is a skill! It is rarely, if at all, taught in the schools. There are specialists today, outside of educational institutions, which offer programs in listening. But none of it is taught at same level as speaking. Speaking is emphasized in schools, but listening is not. The world assumes you can listen!

According to a University of Missouri study (2009), and there are many studies, after 48 hours we retain about 25% of what we hear. A University of Florida study (reported by Kramar and Lewis, 1951) and a University of Michigan study (reported by Heilman, 1951) suggest that we tend to forget up to one half of what have heard within 8 hours of hearing it. No matter what survey you lean to, we do not score well in the listening department!

Why is this the case? Well, a major reason, according to Faculty Commons, is that the average person can speak at a rate of 125-175 words per minute, but, the average person can listen at rate up to 450 words per minute. The time differential between the speed at which words are spoken and the speed with which we hear those words tends to encourage our brain to wander.

It is not my intent here to enter into a discussion of how the brain functions or why it functions in different ways, under different circumstances; I do not have the knowledge required to so do. The intent is more basic, more fundamental, and is directed to helping us do a better job of listening.

Per the surveys mentioned earlier, think of that level of performance or underperformance in terms of your job.  You get and you give instructions.  Potentially you are hearing 25% to 50 %, and those to whom you speak are getting the same. So, you have all the makings for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, errors in performance that may waste resources, or even more serious consequences. All in all, a situation where frustration and anger can thrive.

So what can we do? There are several remedies, none are 100% foolproof, but if practiced in earnest, they should improve your listening skills considerably. Here are some ideas:

  1. Focus, focus, focus on what is being said! Give your undivided attention! Do not look out the window; do not think about what is for lunch; do not think about some issue at home or work; do not shuffle papers; do not look at what other people around you are doing; or any number of other distractions. Stay focused! If you note your mind wandering or your attention being diverted, try changing the position of your body (sitting or standing) or shift your weight from one foot to the other (if standing). This takes practice and determination.
  2. Emotional involvement in an issue being discussed could be a barrier to good listening. Emotional involvement may mean you hear what you want to hear and formulate responses or judgements based on less than a full understanding and assessment of everything that actually was active-listening-300x199said.  Focus on what is being said, as objectively as you can.
  3. Some minor body language on your part, a nod for instance (unless of course you are dozing-off), to indicate you are listening; or, a simple statement like “OK, I understand”.
  4. Let the speaker finish speaking before you speak.
  5. Ask clarifying questions when necessary; make sure you understand, especially where you believe things have been left unsaid.
  6. Work on picking out the main points you believe the speaker wants to get across to you. Listen for phrases such as “my point is…”, or “what you need to remember…” or “the principal thing to understand is… .”. Focus on main ideas and concepts.
  7. Take notes. The mind can listen, comprehend, and write too. Like other skills, this takes practice.
  8. Try restating in your own words what the speaker said to you to make sure you have grasped clearly what the speaker meant.

Your mind is a powerful tool if employed properly.  It has been estimated that about 60% (Barker, Gaines, Gladney & Holley, 1980) of communication is listening. Learn to do it well!