How to Become a Good Listener – and Why You Should
American businesses lose millions of dollars every year because “people don’t listen,” directions are not fol- lowed, or critical details aren’t properly communi- cated. While effective listening is an important element of most organization cultures, it isn’t usually given a great deal of attention – until there’s a problem.
Effective listening benefits us personally and profes- sionally by increasing productivity, enhancing self-confi- dence, and reducing the number of misunderstandings in our lives. It’s also good for our health; heart rates and oxy- gen consumption are reduced when we attentively listen.
Listening is one of the communications skills we use the most, but also is one in which we have the least amount of formal education.
So what keeps people from being good listeners?
Part of the problem is that “people take listening for granted,” explains Alan R. Ehrlich, president of the International Listening Association. Most of our listen- ing occurs in a limited context, communicating with the same people about the same topics, with which we are familiar. This comfort zone simplifies life and we are not frequently intellectually challenged. It becomes easy to gloss over what is being said.
“Everybody has the capability to be an excellent lis- tener,” claims Ehrlich. A lack of commitment to the pro- cess is a primary barrier.
Good listening requires commitment and energy. Tired listeners who have no dedication to the topic or the speaker will not get the message.
Emotionally charged words or symbols can divert our attention from the message being sent to us. These triggers send our minds off to think about our favorite sports team, celebrity or situation.
Technology delivers more information than our minds can process, so many folks believe it’s better to only digest the elements that they’re interested in.
We change, misinterpret or misunder- stand over 70 percent of what we hear, according to consultant Valarie A. Washington. She also suggests that 60 percent of all manage- ment problems are related to listening.
What is listening?
It’s the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal mes- sages, as defined by the International Listening Associa- tion. We experience it hundreds of times a day and it takes only a fraction of a second.
Amazingly, we use less than half of our brain capacity when listening. Researchers believe that we can process up to 500 words per minute. The unused brain capacity could be used to make us better listeners.
How do we become better listeners in conversations and meetings?
You can do several things to give yourself a signifi- cant advantage as a communicator.
Make a conscious commitment to be an effective lis- tener. If you cannot make that commitment, schedule the conversation for a more convenient time, when you can concentrate. A two-person conversation requires two commitments.
Concentrate on what is being said and maintain eye contact. Block out both external distractions (phones, electronic media, other people talking) and internal distractions (other thoughts, anticipated responses).
Invest the energy to listen with an open mind, so you can get the most out of what is said. It actually takes more energy to listen than it does to speak.
Let the speaker express their complete thought be- fore you respond. Listen to the whole message before coming to a conclusion and offering feedback.
Focus on the content of the message being sent to you. Deal with the facts and the central ideas being ex- pressed. Do not be distracted by the speaker’s delivery and mannerisms.
Be aware that your brain filters everything, using your life experiences, personal opinions, and biases to determine our response. A calm look at the whole mes- sage, without strong emotional reaction, should be a priority.
Ask questions to clarify information, confirm accu- racy, and obtain supplemental data. Concise, direct queries can help you get the complete picture.
Take notes or record conversations as an aid in un- derstanding and retaining the message. While some people see this as old fashioned, it’s a reliable way to ensure accuracy. New tools, like voice recognition soft- ware, can make this process easy.
Exercise your brain. Use more of its vast capacity to focus on the central ideas being articulated by the speaker. The brain muscle can be strengthened by ex- ercising it.
“It’s important to show that we are listening through our body language,” claims Dr. Laura A. Janusik, a re- searcher and professor at Rockhurst University.
The best way to facilitate a positive change in your listening skills is to pick one technique and apply it over a 21-day period. This helps make it a part of your communications toolkit and ingrains the habit so it be- comes part of your daily routine.
You can be a better listener. You just need to invest some energy in the process.
Greg Enos is a certified listening professional who has served on the executive board of the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), and promotes listening (www.gregenos.com) as a critical core skill in all of his work.