You’ve probably heard the adages “You have two ears and only one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you talk” and “Silent and listen contain the same letters.”
Just because we have the physical ability to hear does not mean we are always listening. Intentional listening is a critical communication skill that can help you in many facets of your life.
Can improve your ability to provide excellent customer service – To me, one of the myths of customer service is to treat people the way you want to be treated. Not everyone wants to be treated the same way, and you need to be able to listen to your customers to find out what they want.
Helps you negotiate and/or sell your product/service – If you listen to understand your customer or someone you’re negotiating with, you will be in a better position to sell to their desires and needs, or counter an objection.
Is a critical management and leadership skill – A study reported in the Journal of Business Communication showed that good listeners hold higher-level positions and are promoted more often than those with less effective listening skills. Former CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iaccoca, once said that listening can make “the difference between a mediocre company and a great company.” Unfortunately, managers and executives tend to become better talkers than listeners – because they’re used to “being listened to.” Managers tend to be lousy listeners despite the fact that “listening is the skill that makes them most effective once they get to the top,” said James Calano, CEO of Career-Track, Inc.
Can improve family relationships – Spending some time each day listening to your spouse, children, sibling, or parents will give you great insights into their lives. Put down the cell phone. Turn off the TV. Walk away from the computer. And just listen.
There are a lot of barriers to listening intentionally. Take a moment to think about the times you don’t listen well. You might be bored by the subject, preoccupied with something else, think you already know the answer, or you’re judging the speaker’s style, dress or appearance.
The average adult’s brain is capable of processing 400-500 verbal words per minute, but the average adult only speaks at the rate of 100-150 words per minute.
That means, for the 45 seconds out of every minute that the brain is not processing oral communication, it must find something else to occupy it. This accounts for listening problems.
Another reason we don’t always listen intentionally is we believe myths about listening:
- I can hear you, therefore I’m listening – We assume that just because someone can hear (a physiologic function) that they are listening (giving meaning to the spoken word). If you’re watching television while having a conversation, you can hear both of them, but you cannot concentrate well enough on either one in order to truly listen.
- I know how to listen, I do it every day – Just like an athlete needs to keep training to reach maximum potential, we need to train ourselves to listen better and more intentionally.
- Listening is passive – Listening is an active skill. We have to pay attention to the speaker, their expressions, and body language.
- Listening is a one-way function – The speaker should help you listen by varying his tone, pace, and volume and by maintaining eye contact.
- The meaning is in words – Only a portion of your message is conveyed by the words. The rest is conveyed by nonverbal methods such as tone, volume, body language and emphasis. Say the following sentence out loud seven times. Emphasize a different word in the sentence each time and see how different the sentences are: “My son did not break the window.”
Developing positive listening habits does take time. Here are some suggestions:
- Let the speaker finish his/her point without interruption.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions when someone is speaking. Don’t anticipate what a person is trying to say.
- Wait until the speaker is finished before you develop your response. Write down notes that help you can prepare your own reply once the speaker is done speaking.
- Listen to the message instead of focusing on the speaker’s appearance, style of delivery or the fact that you’ve had disagreements before.
- If you find your mind drifting away, change positions.
- Even if you’ve heard it before focus on new applications of the subject. Find an area of interest in the topic. Ask yourself what the speaker is saying that will be of use to you.
- When the speaker pauses, mentally reinforce the message or take notes instead of letting your mind wander or daydream
- Pay extra attention when you think the message will be dull or too difficult to understand or when you know you’re going to be distracted or are not feeling well.
- Ask questions to clarify points and to let the speaker know you’re paying attention.
- Keep a simple listening communication journal.
- Assess how much time you spend listening every day
- Determine when you were a good listener and when you were a bad listener. What were the circumstances? To whom were you talking? Did you judge or withhold judgment? Did you argue in your mind?
- Pay attention to the speaker’s nonverbal clues.
Once you develop your listening skills, you can develop skills to help your listeners when you are speaking.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Use good body language.
- Change your tone of voice and volume.
- Give clues or announce, “Now, pay attention. This is important…”
- Use silence effectively.
- Use words that are understandable.
- Use supporting materials effectively. Sometimes in large groups, Power Point or hand-outs can be distracting rather than helpful.
- Make sure your listener understands you. Instead of asking, “Do you understand?” Ask them to repeat back to you what you’ve just said. If they are not able to say it back to you to your satisfaction, restate your remarks. Repeat until both sides are satisfied that the message has gotten across.
I’ll leave you with this quote about listening: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he learns something.”