How much do you hear when you are in listening mode?

ListeningThe importance of communication for businesses with clients, with colleagues, with employees, and just between individuals, has been well documented in surveys, studies and various professional articles.

Recently, the Houston Business Journal (the Journal) published an article by Paige Donnell titled, “Why Employee Communications Matter (March 10-16, 2017). This is just one of many articles published by the Journal over the past 20 years or so. The importance of communication in public relations or marketing or understanding clients’ needs and wants have been the focuses of these articles.

Understanding Communication

However, getting inside “communication” and understanding its makeup is also important to establishing and maintaining relationships. Communication is made up of two distinct elements: conveying the message, orally, or in written form, or other methods; and listening. The latter is the difficult element and the focus of this article.

Listening is an active process (you must be part of it for it to work), and it has three principal elements:

Hearing: listening is paying attention, sufficiently, to grasp what a speaker is saying or has said. You must have “heard” at least the basics of what someone has said for the other two elements to work.

Comprehending/Understanding: understanding, in your own way, what has been said. Putting a meaning or a context to what you have heard.

Assessment: You have heard what is said, you understand it in some way, now does what you have heard make sense; it is believable; is it doable? What are the implications of what has been said? Are questions generated by the assessment? Then you ask the questions to clarify points or issues which may be directions you have been given to do a job. The questions asked and the answers received move one, more clearly and directly, into the area we call communication.

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

The Art of Listening

Listening is a skill! It is a learned skill! It is also a perishable 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 the same level as speaking. Speaking is emphasized in schools, or specialized programs such as Dale Carnegie courses, but listening is not. The world assumes you can listen!

According to a University of Missouri study (1993), and there are many studies, after 48 hours we retain about 25 percent 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 various studies, is that the average person can speak at a rate of just 125-175 words per minute, but the average person can listen at a rate up to 450 words per minute. And, apparently, the average person can think and process information much faster than he/she can listen. 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 the 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 percent to 50 percent, 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 is created in which frustration and anger can thrive.

Improving Your Listening Skills

So what can we do? There are several remedies, none are 100 percent foolproof, but if practiced in earnest, and with conscious intent, they should aid in improving your listening skills considerably. Here are some ideas:

  • 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 self-awareness, practice and determination.
  • 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 judgments based on less than a full understanding and assessment of everything that actually was said. Focus on what is being said, as objectively as you can.
  • 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.”
  • Let the speaker finish speaking before you speak.
  • Ask clarifying questions when necessary; make sure you understand, especially where you believe things have been left unsaid.
  • 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.
  • Take notes. The mind can listen, comprehend, and allow you to write too. Like other skills, this takes practice.
  • 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 percent of communication is listening (Barker, Gaines, Gladney & Holley, 1980). Learn to do it well!

For further reading see: Nichols, Ralph G. and Stevens, Leonard A., Listening To people, Harvard Business Review, September, 1957, pp. 85-92; Husman, R. C., Lahiff, J. M., and Penrose, J. M., Business Communication: Strategies and Skills, Chicago: Dryden Press, 1988; and, Schilling, Dianne, 10 Steps To Effective Listening, Forbes-WomensMedia, Article, November 9, 2012.