The Importance of Listening

Listening -- we do it constantly. So why read an article to learn what we already know how to do? Listening is natural!

Or...is it? Ineffective listening is one of the most frequent causes of:

Ineffective listening is also acknowledged to be one of the primary contributors to divorce and to the inability of a parent and child to openly communicate.

And, people view poor listeners as self-centered, disinterested, preoccupied, and social boors!

If all of these negatives result from ineffective listening, why don't we listen effectively?

1. Hard Work

Listening is more than just keeping quiet. An active listener registers increased blood pressure, a higher pulse rate, and more perspiration. It means concentrating on the other person rather than on ourselves.

2. Information Overload

In today's society there is enormous competition for our attention from advertisements, radio, TV, movies, reading material, and more. With all these incoming stimuli, we have learned to screen out that information that we deem irrelevant. Sometimes we also screen out things that are important to us.

3. Rush to Action

We think we know what the person is going to say, so we jump in and interrupt, rather than taking the necessary time to listen and hear the person out.

4. Speed Difference

There is a considerable difference between speech speed and thought speed. The average person speaks at about 135 to 175 words a minute, but can listen to 400 to 500 words a minute. So, the poor listener spends all that time between the speed with which he listens and the speed with which he talks, on daydreams ... or on thoughts of what he is going to say next... or in mentally arguing with the person speaking. It's like listening to two voices at the same time.

5. Lack of Training

We do more listening than speaking, reading, or writing, yet we receive almost no formal education in listening. Remarkably, the average student gets less than one half year of listening education through her first 12 years of schooling!

Although many people assume they are good listeners, few actually are. The average employee spends about three-quarters of each working day in verbal communications. Nearly half of that is spent on listening. Incredibly, the average employee's listening effectiveness is only 25%. Today, more and more companies are discovering that one bad listener within the managerial ranks can cause much more damage than a number of good listeners can correct.

The normal, untrained listener is likely to understand and retain only about 50% of a conversation, and this relatively poor percentage drops to an even less impressive 25% retention rate 48 hours later. This means that recall of a particular conversation that took place more than a couple of days ago will always be incomplete and usually inaccurate. No wonder people can seldom agree about was discussed!

Listening well -- listening actively -- is obviously important, but how does it really benefit you?

Active listening:

  1. Improves the environment at work, at home, and in sales.
  2. Reduces relationship tensions and hostilities.
  3. Saves time by reducing mistakes and misunderstandings.
  4. Reduces employee turnover.
  5. Leads to early problem solving.
  6. Increases sales and profits.

With all of these benefits, I'm sure you agree that listening is more than just a natural behavior and that it requires some work to improve. But, what's the secret to improving your listening skills?

To listen effectively, you must C A R E S S those you're listening to:

-C- Concentrate -- focus your attention on the speaker and only on the speaker. This means eliminating or ignoring internal distractions (your own thoughts) and environmental disruptions (noise, passersby, telephone, etc.). If possible, the best tactic is to create a receptive, distraction-free environment for the conversation.

-A- Acknowledge -- acknowledge your speaker by demonstrating your interest and attention. This should be done both verbally and non-verbally. For example, it's important to let the person know you're listening by saying, "Uh-huh," "I see," and so on. At the same time, be sure to give nonverbal feedback, such as nodding your head, using good eye contact and slightly leaning toward the speaker.

-R- Research -- gather information about your speaker through the skillful use of questions and statements. You need an inquiring mind to keep the conversation going so it's a dialogue, not a monologue. Play off the theme of the speaker's message. Ask questions that increase your understanding and draw the speaker out. Start with broad, open-ended questions, then follow with specific, closed-ended questions as the conversation progresses. Follow each topic of conversation to its logical conclusion. Use questions to expand the discussion, clarify unclear points, or redirect the conversation to another topic area. Give verbal feedback that you understand what is being said and felt.

-E- Emotional Control -- exercising emotional control means dealing successfully with highly charged subjects or sensitive words and statements in a manner that allows you to remain focused on the theme of the speaker's message. To exercise emotional control, it helps to be aware of your sensitivities, which include disinterest in the subject under discussion, emotionally charged words, bad grammar, a limited vocabulary, or topics such as religion and politics. You might also be overly sensitive to the speaker's poor posture, unkempt appearance or accent. Being aware of sensitive areas helps you control, or preferably eliminate, your emotional reactions, allowing you to concentrate on the speaker's message.

-S- Sensing -- keep your eyes and ears open to the vocal and visual messages, in addition to the verbal message. Be an astute observer of body language -- hands, facial expressions, and body postures -- to notice departures from the "norm" for that person. In addition, listen for emotions conveyed in the speaker's vocal qualities -- speed, volume, pitch, rhythm, inflection and clarity. Taken together, your vocal and visual observations will help you determine the speaker's emotional state and intent, as well as the speaker's content.

-S- Structure -- structuring is listening primarily to the verbal component -- the content -- of someone's message. The structuring process revolves around three primary activities -- indexing, sequencing, and comparing. Indexing refers to taking mental or written notes of the topic or major idea; the key points being discussed; and the reasons, sub-points, and/or supporting points.

Sequencing is listening for order or priority. Sometimes someone tells you something in which the order is very important, or you are given instructions or directions where the order is crucial. Comparing is concentrating on the points that the speaker is making so that you can discriminate between fact and theory, positive and negative, actual and projected, advantages and disadvantages. As you listen, you're involved in a continual process of comparing ideas, options, attitudes, facts, feelings and beliefs. You need to keep track of the speaker's message.

Although the six skills are all relatively simple to learn, implementing them may be a more difficult task, because to do so means breaking through a barrier of poor listening habits that most of us have developed over a lifetime.

The payoff for improving your listening skills and becoming an active listener is obviously enormous. The benefits are yours simply for the -- listening!

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