Listening For Results
Listening is a skill which can be developed like any other skill. Good listeners are aware of the barriers to good listening, are motivated to listen well, spend a lot of energy listening, and take full responsibility for the communication process.
Listening is not always recognized as a skill. Many of us assume listening is automatic, that if we are within hearing range, listening will occur without any special effort on our part. Yet we are confronted on a daily basis with evidence that people do not listen well.
Parents do not listen to children. Students do not listen to teachers. Managers do not listen to employees. Unfortunately, we often do not listen to those who are most important to us. Poor listening can create problems caused by lack of information and misunderstanding.
Good listening is important in dealing with people. It helps us know whether or not our instructions are understood. It helps us understand people and their problems. It leads us to new ideas and better information. It helps build good relationships based on trust and understanding. Lastly, it can avoid a whole range of problems that are caused by poor communication.
The Role of Listening in Interpersonal Communication
Interpersonal communication is an exchange process. Information flows back and forth. The sender and receiver continuously exchange roles. If one person fails to listen, his/her response may be inappropriate, or not responsive to the sender’s message. Not only does this disrupt the flow of communication, it can imply to the sender that the receiver didn’t care enough about the conversation to pay attention. Between friends this is embarrassing. Between an employee and a customer or a parent and a child, failure to listen can cause real problems. Important information can be missed resulting in a poor decision. To make matters worse, one person may assume the other has information and act accordingly. Also, when one person realizes the other is not listening, he or she is less likely to have confidence in future communication with that person.
Listening is the ability to understand information communicated orally. It goes beyond simply receiving information. Listening includes receiving information visually (such as facial expressions), interpreting the sender’s timing and use of space, clarifying misunderstood messages and providing the speaker with a continuing flow of nonverbal encouragement and reaction.
Listening is equally complicated where face-to-face communication is not a factor, as with a telephone conversation. Here again, information exchanged involves hearing words that are being transmitted. But the good listener is also influenced by the speaker’s choice of words, tone of voice, speech rate, volume and length of pauses.
Whether the communication is face-to-face or by telephone, listening is an extremely complex process. It is especially important that one understands the significance of the listening process.
Barriers to Effective Listening
It is important to understand the barriers that stand in the way of effective listening. Awareness of these potential barriers is the first step toward improving listening skills.
Fragmented Attention Span
Listening is hard work. It takes energy to keep our attention focused on what someone is saying to us. In the middle of a conversation it is common for us to let our attention wander from what is being said, to focus instead on our broken lawn mower, the fact that our income tax is due next week, or the conversation we had with someone else a little earlier. Our attention wanders away, then wanders back, in and out of the present conversation. This is sometimes called “hop-skip-and-jump” listening.
The reason for this fragmented attention lies in the speed with which the mind can handle incoming information. There is much debate about how rapidly the brain can comprehend the spoken word, but at minimum it can receive and digest information at the rate of 400 to 600 words per minute. People do not speak this rapidly. Most people in the United States speak at a rate of 125 to 175 words per minute, much slower than the brain of the listener understands the words. Therefore the mind has a lot of extra time to focus on other ideas rather than zeroing in on what is being said. Attention is easily divided rather than focused.
Our ability to focus on what is being said also depends on how well motivated we are to listen. If we are highly motivated, other ideas and thoughts are not very attractive. But if we don’t care very much about what the other person is saying, other thoughts and ideas become more attractive, and our mind is likely to wander.
Unfortunately, another problem which develops from the fragmented attention span is the fact that many people become highly skilled at convincing the sender that listening is going on when it is not. Parents continue to read the morning paper and nod occasionally when a child attempts to communicate. Following the parents’ example, the children learn to “tune out” much of a parental lecture while appearing to listen. A manager preoccupied with an upcoming meeting may go through the motions of listening to a subordinate but end up with no clear understanding of what was said. The employee leaves believing the manager understood the message, satisfied that the responsibility to communicate has been discharged. It may be that those of us who pretend to listen deserve what happens to us as a result!
Characteristics of the Sender – During a conversation the listener may become aware of some unusual characteristic of the sender. For example, the sender may have a spot on his tie, or her slip may be showing, or he/she may have crooked teeth. Any characteristic that departs from the norm has the potential to distract us. Instead of listening, we may be saying to ourselves, “Is that really mustard on his tie?” We become so fascinated by the unusual aspect of the sender that we stop listening, at least for a time.
The speaker’s delivery can also be a distraction. A slight lisp, a southern drawl, even a variation in speech pattern can draw our attention away from the message being communicated.
The Environment – Most of us have had the experience of conversing at a party with one person while overhearing a nearby conversation that is far more interesting. Our conversation is about the state of the economy while the nearby conversation deals with a neighborhood scandal. Or at work we may be listening while someone describes a problem and suddenly realize that an important customer is carrying on an animated conversation with our secretary in the outer office. In both situations we are distracted from the current conversation by another activity. Sights, sounds, activities, smells can all distract us and make it difficult to listen effectively. We may struggle to pay attention, but our mind wanders to the distraction as if drawn by a magnet.
The physical setting itself can be a listening distraction. If the room is too hot or cold, the ventilation poor, or the sun blinding our vision, listening becomes difficult. Uncomfortable chairs, an awkward seating arrangement (too far apart or too close), or the presence of a physical barrier such as a large desk or lamp between the speaker and listener, can hamper the listening process.
We must recognize that the entire setting in which a conversation occurs can cause distractions. A poorly planned time and place for communication undermines our ability to listen.
Taking Too Many Notes – There are times when a listener should take notes in order to remember what has been communicated. Ideally the listener jots down main ideas, a word or two at a time, in order to reconstruct the essence of the conversation later. But at times the listener can be come so concerned about not missing anything that note taking interferes with the listening process. The listener understands only fragments of the total message.
There is also the danger that the listener taking notes becomes so concerned about recording every “fact” that the connection between facts and feeling accompanying those facts is missed. This problem, sometimes called “fact listening,” can also occur without note taking when the listener is more concerned with facts than with the total message.
We cannot blame all the listening barriers on external distractions. Our personal experiences and attitudes present the major stumbling blocks to listening.
Emotional Defense – At times a sender will unintentionally use a word, phrase, or idea that sends the listener into an emotional tailspin. We as listeners carry around inside our heads a set of beliefs, values, prejudices and philosophies. People who are sending messages frequently bump into these emotional “blind spots” without realizing it. When one of these “red flag words” is spoken, the listener tends to stop listening. Instead, he/she ponders why the sender made such a statement or fumes inside at the implied insult.
Premature Dismissal – The amount of attention we pay to what people say depends in part on the history of our relationship with them. We listen carefully to people who usually have worthwhile things to say, but there are others who we dismiss before they begin. We tell ourselves they haven’t said anything important in the past so it is unlikely that they will say anything of merit this time. The problem with dismissing someone prematurely is that just this once he/she might have something important to say.
We like to listen to people whose biases are similar to ours, but it is easy to “turn off” someone whose views conflict with ours. Unfortunately, a closed mind to differing ideas is not the way to develop good listening.
We also dismiss people because of the topic that is being discussed (we may not be interested), the position of the person (“. . customers are all crazy these days”), or the general context of the conversation (“nobody ever says anything of significance in these meetings”).
Refutation – Although we sometimes “dismiss” messages, another approach when we feel the message is not in accord with our personal bias is to listen and refute. When we begin to prepare our answer while the sender is still speaking, however, we are no longer listening well. Jumping ahead to refute the speaker before he/she finishes puts an end to the listening process. Our ego involvement has decreased our listening activity.
Inner Anxiety –Another barrier to good listening lies in our inner anxieties. From time to time we all have personal problems and anxieties. How will we pay this month’s bills? Why has our son not written from school? Or, where am I heading? What is my future? When our mind is preoccupied with personal problems and anxieties, good listening becomes extremely difficult.
Fatigue – A barrier to good listening which should not be forgotten is fatigue. When one is mentally or physically pushed to the limit, the concentration necessary for good listening is almost impossible to achieve. The fatigue following a sleepless night, a long weekend, or unusual physical activity will definitely hinder one’s ability to be a good listener.
As was stated earlier, understanding the barriers to good listening is the first step toward improving our listening skill. To become a good listener, however, the understanding of these barriers must be followed by a concentrated effort to overcome them.
Overcoming Listening Barriers
We can all improve our listening skills. First, we must make a firm commitment to improve, recognizing that good listening is necessary for effective communication. Second, we must take the responsibility for improved listening skills. It is easy to blame others for poor communication by saying, “she misled me” or “he talks in circles.” In accepting responsibility for good communication, we must sometimes compensate for the inadequacies of the sender. Third, we must recognize that listening is hard work. We must put energy into listening rather than acting as a passive receptacle for the words of others. Finally, we must be aware of the barriers to effective listening as they apply to us. For example, we should learn to recognize our own patterns of emotional deafness, premature dismissal, and pretended attention. What follows is a set of specific suggestions for improving listening skills.
Control Time and Place
Our ability to listen is affected in important ways by both time and place. As a general rule, whenever we sense that time or place is interfering with our ability to listen, we should take the initiative to move the conversation to a new time or a different place.
If someone wishes to communicate a message to us a few moments after we have received bad news, we may be so preoccupied with that news that we are unable to listen attentively. A father who has just learned of his son’s truancy from school may have trouble listening to his friend discuss next week’s golf pairings. In these instances the effective listener might say, “Excuse me, but this is a bad time for this conversation to occur. I have a number of things on my mind. Could I call you later this evening?”
Similarly, it is difficult to be a good listener in a conversation that occurs near a noisy machine or in a small room while several other people are speaking. In such cases the effective listener could say, “I’m having trouble listening to you because of this noisy machine. Could we move this conversation elsewhere?” It is usually a mistake to struggle with listening when the timing or the environment interferes significantly with the listening process.
On the other hand, the good listener, or the speaker who wishes to be listened to, can plan in advance for a good listening environment. It is a good idea to check the temperature, close a window if necessary to keep out noise, open a window if necessary for ventilation and arrange the seating appropriately. In planning the best environment for good listening, one should remember that a comfortable, quiet, relaxed atmosphere is most desirable.
On those occasions when we cannot control the time or place, and it interferes with our ability to listen, other listening techniques (such as active listening) must be employed to assure good communication.
Be a Good Sending Model
One way to improve our listening skill is to demonstrate good sending skills to those with whom we communicate frequently. This is done by controlling the setting (time and place) in which the sending is done, organizing what we send in advance, sharing the agenda for communication before sending, announcing new topics before moving ahead, summarizing from time to time and encouraging interaction with the listener throughout a conversation.
Another way to encourage good listening is to speed up the presentation of our message. Remembering that the average listener hears over twice as fast as most of us speak, eliminating long pauses and “ah’s” will serve to aid the listening process. In addition, an actual speeding up on one’s delivery will in effect require greater concentration on the part of the listener and thus aid his/her listening process.
On the other hand, the effective sender is also sensitive to subtle signs that the listener has not understood something and takes the time to encourage the listener to ask for clarification. The listener may frown or look puzzled. This is the sender’s signal to stop, clear up that point, and move on only when the listener truly understands. When the listener is taking notes, an effective sender may stop sending periodically to allow the listener to complete a particular phrase or idea.
In short, the effective sender organizes information, delivers it fluently, controls distractions, encourages interaction and displays sensitivity to the listener’s lack of understanding. The good sender demonstrates good communication for others to follow.
Be a Reactive Listener
During any conversation, the sender is taking in information at the very time information is being sent. The sender is aware of nods, smiles, frowns, shifts in position, eye contact, note taking and other signals from the listener, all of which
demonstrate that listening is going on. The effective listener makes an effort to supply the sender with a continuous flow of such signals. These signals have a reassuring effect on the sender and encourage him/her to put maximum energy into the sending process.
Eye contact is an especially important factor in reassuring the sender. An affirmative nod can also be very helpful. On the other hand, it is important not to overdo this flow of feedback to the sender. Constant nodding of the head, rapid switches between smiles and frowns, can be distracting to the sender and therefore interfere with communication. Provide only the encouragement that the sender needs, no more and no less.
Take Notes Where Appropriate
When we take notes as a listener, we imply to the sender that we consider the conversation of specific importance. This is of great significance when senders consider their messages to be of some urgency. For example, an employee may have a complaint about the company which requires action by the manager. By taking notes, the manager communicates to the employee that the message is indeed being taken seriously. Research proves that people who are upset are reassured if the listener takes notes, assuming the sender wishes the listener to take some sort of action.
But there are also times when note taking interferes with the communication. If the sender wishes to speak “off the record,” it is time for the listener to lay down the pen or pencil and simply listen. This communicates respect for the sender’s desire to keep the message private. Note taking can interfere with communication when the sender is offended by note taking itself. It is frequently important to ask permission to take notes.
When taking notes, it is generally a good idea to jot down only main ideas not facts or examples. When we concentrate on facts or examples, we often lose the main ideas. We also find ourselves writing more and listening less. Notes should be brief and if necessary reviewed and filled in immediately after the conversation. As a general rule, the fewer notes taken the better since the act of note taking can interfere with listening.
During the conversation we usually know when we have not been paying attention. Having made a commitment to become better listeners, we are obliged to “catch hold” of ourselves and force our attention back to the conversation. If this is done quickly, we can usually pick up the thread of conversation without too much effort. But if we discover we are lost, it is extremely important to interrupt the speaker, admit that our mind has been wandering, apologize and request that
some of the information be repeated. While this is often embarrassing, it is less so than if the listener makes a bad decision based on incomplete information. The willingness to admit that we have not paid attention requires courage, and this is where commitment comes in the commitment to become a better listener.
But the real trick is to catch hold of ourselves as soon as we become aware that we are not paying attention and force ourselves to listen again immediately. This can become a positive habit which replaces the negative habit of allowing our minds to wander.
Rather than let internal or external distractions get the best of us, we must be alert listeners. No matter how boring the topic may appear or how poorly the message is delivered, we must listen for something useful to us, constantly sorting out ideas of possible value.
The alert listener is sensitive to the total meaning to the feeling of the message as well as the content. We must listen between the lines to the tone, volume, facial expressions and bodily movement, all of which contribute to the total message. If we think with the speaker, not for or about him/her, we will receive the total message more clearly and accurately.
Whether or not we agree with the bias of the speaker, as alert listeners we listen with an open mind. We are willing to challenge our own views, with the ideas presented by the speaker. We concentrate on receiving the speaker’s message.
Probably the most powerful tool available to a listener is called active listening. Whereas a “reactive” listener gives the sender a continuing flow of nonverbal signals, an “active” listener takes part in the conversation as an equal participant. As used here, the term “active listener” involves (1) continually acting as if there is a need to repeat back what is heard to the sender; (2) selectively repeating back what is heard to the sender, using different language; (3) requesting clarification when necessary; and (4) identifying and reflecting the emotional part of a message back to the sender.
Act as if Repeating Back is Necessary – If as listeners we convince ourselves in advance that we might at some time be called upon to repeat back what has been said to us, we are more likely to pay attention. We pretend we will have to give back to the sender; behave as if we are a student listening to a teacher just before an examination, a soldier listening to an officer just before an important battle, an employee listening to instructions from a manager. Listening as if repeating back is necessary will increase our concentration and hence our listening ability.
Repeat Back in Different Words – As listeners there are times during a conversation when we are not quite certain we understand what has been said. An extremely powerful listening technique involves repeating back to the sender, in different language, what we thought we heard. It is important to use language that is different from that originally used by the sender; after all, the sender’s way of saying it was possibly confusing in the first place.
It is also important that we rephrase the idea objectively. It should not be slanted or exaggerated towards the listener’s bias or show judgment in any way.
After repeating back what we thought we heard, the sender may confirm that the message was accurately received. On the other hand, the sender may find it necessary to restate the intended message. Either way, our “repeating back” strategy has forced clarification of the message. Both participants are now clear that what was sent has been accurately understood and the conversation can proceed from there.
As with any powerful interpersonal tool or device, the “repeating back” approach if overused will lose its effectiveness. This technique should be used selectively to clarify points of possible confusion during interpersonal communication.
Request Clarification – An effective active listening approach involves requesting clarification. The listener can simply say, “I don’t understand,” or “Would you mind going over that again?” This technique can be used more often than “repeating back.” Unfortunately, we as listeners are somewhat reluctant to admit we haven’t understood what was said. Perhaps our egos get in the way, or we are afraid we will appear to be stupid. And sometimes the sender uses fancy language and long words to appear superior. It takes self control and commitment for a listener to admit lack of understanding under these circumstances.
Clarification should be requested as often as necessary during a conversation, regardless of our fears or the superior attitude of the sender. The alternative is poor communication which is far worse than appearing ignorant.
Reflect Emotional Part of Message – Another active listening technique is reflecting emotion. Messages from a sender have two parts, the content and the feeling. If an employee says angrily, “My paycheck is short again,” the content is information about the paycheck; whereas the feeling (anger in this case) is communicated by tone of voice, gesture, facial expression and other aspects of the message. Only the content is being dealt with if his/her manager responds with, “I’ll look into it.” But the manager can demonstrate that he/she has heard the feeling part of the message by responding, “Gee, you sound pretty angry about it.” This response “reflects” the feeling back to the sender, letting the sender know that the message behind the message has been understood. In this example, the “I’ll look into it,” should still be added shortly.
On those rare occasions when reflecting feeling is a good idea, one advantage is that the sender feels genuinely understood if the reflected feeling is accurate. It is important, however, for the listener to understand the total message, content, and feeling. Another advantage of reflecting the feeling of a message is that the sender can correct an inaccurate impression. The employee in the example might respond to the manager, “No, I’m not really angry, just frustrated.” The manager now has a better understanding of the total message. He/she does not have to assume how the employee feels.
Perhaps the primary value of this technique is that content and feelings can be discussed separately. Sometimes people become so emotional they cannot carry on a rational discussion of the content of their message. Reflecting feelings enables a person to talk first about how he/she feels, which tends to have a calming effect on himself/herself. once the feelings are dealt with, he/she is more capable of a calm, rational discussion of the content.
The person who over uses this technique runs the risk of being seen as phony, playing “shrink,” or just plain nosey. Reflecting feeling should be used sparingly. But the spirit, the attitude that the listener is totally involved, is always important.
Listening is a skill, and like most skills it can be improved with understanding and practice. Listening is a particularly important skill for anyone who deals with people, as it is necessary in order to understand their problems, their feelings and attitudes, and their ideas. The person who listens poorly creates problems for himself/herself and others due to misinformation and lack of understanding. The person who listens well, on the other hand, will solve problems more effectively and will have a better relationship with others.
Barriers to effective listening emerge not only from the environment, but from the speaker; and even more important, from the listener himself/herself.
Overcoming barriers to effective listening involves making a commitment to improve listening, taking responsibility for the communication process, recognizing that listening is hard work, and being aware of the listening barriers. Specific suggestions for improved listening include controlling time and place, becoming a good sending model, becoming a “reactive” listener, taking notes only when appropriate, catching oneself when attention drifts and listening alertly.
Undoubtedly the most significant technique to be used by the good listener is active listening. This requires total involvement; remembering what is said, understanding what is said and reflecting to the speaker that both the content and the feeling of the message have been communicated.
Merwyn Hayes is CEO of The Hayes Group International, Inc., a highly successful consulting firm focusing on people issues within organizations. The company was established by Merwyn in 1976 and has served over 1,700 organizations. Merwyn has personally worked with over 500 organizations. His writings and consulting focus on helping people individually and as teams. Much of his work centers on leadership development, team development,… Read more »