The silent art of listening

Feedback ombuds often hear from visitors is, “You are a great listener.”  This may be followed by a statement like, “I wish I could listen as well as you do.  I need to work on that.”

The truth is those visitors are in good company.  The majority – about 90% – of people are poor listeners.  What?!?! How can that be? In part, because what it really means to listen is vastly misunderstood, we are not taught how to effectively listen and research shows it gets worse as we get older.  

Let’s debunk four common myths:

Myth #1: Listening and hearing are the same thing.  

Myth Buster #1: Hearing is the process in which sound waves strike the eardrum and cause vibrations, which are then transmitted to the brain.  Conversely, listening occurs when the brain reconstructs these impulses and gives them meaning.

Myth #2: Listening is like breathing, it is a natural process for most people (absent injury or illness).

Myth Buster #2: Listening is a skill much like speaking.  Most people do it and few do it well. Unfortunately, despite this fact, while most of us were taught how to speak and write, the amount of time devoted to teaching listening is far less than the time given to other types of communication.  

Myth #3: Listening is a passive activity – you simply absorb ideas like a sponge.  

Myth Buster #3: Listening requires mental effort and intention.  It requires desire and dedication.

Myth #4: All listeners receive the same message.

Myth Buster #4: Uniform comprehension is rarely the case.  Realistically, if you ask five people who attended the same meeting what they heard during the meeting, you will more than likely get five different variations. This is because we process information differently based on a variety of factors such as physiological factors, social roles, cultural background, personal interests, varying needs, etc.  These factors shape and distort the information we hear causing our interpretations and perceptions to be uniquely different.

The good news is like any skill, you can learn to be a more effective listener.  Why bother? Good communication builds good relationships. It can also help you see the bigger picture of a problem or issue you are trying to solve – leading to a more effective, long lasting solution.  Here are ten strategies to improve your listening skills:

  1. Limit your talking – you cannot talk and listen simultaneously.  Good communication is 99% listening and 1% talking.
  2. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – practice empathy (also a skill you can learn).
  3. Ask clarifying questions to ensure understanding. Perhaps start by asking at least two clarifying questions before responding or sharing your view to create a habit.
  4. Do not interrupt or change the subject.
  5. Concentrate on what you are hearing and listen with your eyes. Body language and tone constitute 97% of communication.  Listen for what the other person is not saying and for goodness sake, do not mentally prepare what you will say next.
  6. Consider selectively taking some notes – focus on the main themes and important points.
  7. Listen for ideas not just words – again look for themes.  Consider paraphrasing the ideas you hear to check for understanding and to let the other person know you are listening.
  8. Use interjections such as, “Yes” and, “I see” as appropriate to ensure the speaker you are still engaged.
  9. Don’t jump to conclusions or start filling in gaps with your own assumptions.  Ask questions to better understand their conclusions.
  10. Practice and embrace silence. Fun fact: The words listen and silence use the same letters.   

Remember, we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  -Epictetus

Which skill will you work on first?

Need some inspiration or guidance?  Our colleagues at Interaction Management Associates created a checklist to get you started.

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder

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