From the time we are born, listening is a skill acquired and used primarily before any of the other senses. Throughout youth and the teen years, we rely heavily on listening to learn from school and parents. It is also during this time that we develop the skills of communicating.
An old rhyme goes like this; “A wise old owl sat on an oak; the more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard; why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”
Why is it then, with such an aptitude of listening that is developed from the time we are born – perhaps even one the most used of our senses – do we fail to continue listening the older we get?
It seems as though listening is a skill that worsens throughout the growing years, as other skills develop and take precedence. By the time people face adulthood they have also faced many bad experiences. One human instinct is to “tune it out” after awhile. For example, a kid who hears his parents fighting a lot growing up may try to drone out the unwanted sound by blaring music loudly in his bedroom. Or, a child who has faced ridicule from peers may tune out those feelings of rejection by simply not listening to people any longer.
Another reason people don’t listen well as adults is because they have mastered the art of talking. Naturally egocentric as humans, we like to talk about ourselves or about things we like. Over time, this can lead to interrupting. Ifsomeone is not listening to what you have to say they may interrupt frequently. That is because they are on a train of thought and are too unaware that the natural order of conversing back and forth means
‘You talk, then I listen; then I talk, and You listen.”
Yet a wise old sage once said; “We have been given two ears but one single mouth, in order that we may listen more and talk less.” Good point.
Let’s go back to the owl. As an observer, the wise owl mastered listening and was able to capture his surroundings. Think how much more people would be able to take in mentally if they truly heard everything that was going on around them. In the spy movies, the secret agent is always quiet; hence he always knows what’s going on and is a stealthy step ahead of the bad guys.
In an abstract sense, perception impairs the ability to talk and listen adequately causing gaps between the subconscious intent of the leader and what subsequent results may follow. Some leaders intend to ‘bring down’ others in order to fluff up their own ego. This can be a sign of self-doubt. Those are leaders who got promoted because of making their presence known, loudly! The quiet leaders are the motivators. They quietly know what the capabilities are of their subordinates, so they don’t need to yell in order to motivate them. This enforces the aspect of trust on behalf of the leader and the follower. It could be said that leaders are quiet motivators with abundant wisdom, most of which they acquired by listening more and speaking less.
The people who listen are known as wise, well respected and sought-after for advice. People trust them. That is because they are leaders, who absorb information by listening more and talking less. They have mastered the art of listening, hearing and implementing. They have gained respect and trust.
To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well,
and is as essential to all true conversation.
– Chinese Proverb
The final reason that people don’t listen well is just plain laziness. Webster’s describes listening as – making a conscious effort to hear; or paying attention to sound. Hearing is something that can’t be helped, whereas listening requires willpower.
What type of Listener are you?
Along with not listening often enough, people often deny the allegations of not listening in the first place. They may process the information differently as things are interpreted. Many people overanalyze what they have heard and then translate it erroneously. It’s like those dreadful multiple answer test questions on the SATs. You may have stared at all of the answers, thinking; “Are they trying to trick me?” It made you have doubts about the answers, even though the correct answer was staring you in the face. Had you been listening to the teacher, perhaps the right answer would have stuck. Hence, you pencil in the wrong answer instead of doing what you know is right. Listening is very similar. People often misinterpret each other, even people who are speaking the same language.
Therefore, it would be safe to say that listening and hearing affects other senses. When was the last time you went to a busy street festival and actually listened for birds chirping in the background among the busy crowds and voices mingling? People often only hear what they can see, rather than listening to all of their surroundings.
If you want to learn how to listen better, you must begin by wanting to. Having a desire to listen more means admitting that you don’t; as if admitting to a bad habit. According to a study by Anthony J. Alessandra and Phillip L. Hunsaker in their book; The Art of Managing People (1986), people fall into one of four general categories when it comes to listening well. These four categories include: the non-listener, marginal listener, evaluative listener, and the active listener.
- The Non-Listener: Does not make any effort whatsoever. Acts by interrupting and doing most of the talking, not letting anyone else get a word in. The non-listener likes to have the last word.
- Marginal Listener: They may nod and act like they are listening, but only at a superficial level. Frequent misunderstandings can occur because the marginal listener is only half listening or picking up a few words here and there, which is subject to misinterpretation.
- Evaluative Listener: Actively hears what is being said, but without effort to fully understand. They think they understand the message but instead form opinions even before the message is complete, which can misconstrue the intent.
- Active Listener: Not only listens keenly, but tries to see a thing from the other person’s perspective; using not only hearing but picking up on body language, voice inflections and visual cues. They ask questions and truly listen to the answers.
Leaders learn to pick up other sounds and become active listeners. They seem to know what is going on at all times. “The key to connection is conversation. The secret to conversations is to ask questions. You pay a high cost of not listening.”
– Patricia Fripp, past president of the National Speakers Association
9 Ways to Listen Better
Once you have the initial desire to listen more, learning the skill is no so difficult. After all, you’ve been doing it since birth; but over time you just developed bad habits that became a hindrance in your ability to listen well. This applies to most everyone. Here are some strategies that should help you listen more:
- Start focusing. Tuning in means caring about what is being said. Sit up and take notice.
- Remove distractions. If you have trouble concentrating, take note of your surroundings. Turning off the TV or finding a quiet place to have a conversation could make it easier to listen with intent.
- Make eye contact. Talking and listening involves contact that is both visual and audible. You will pick up more points and clarify misunderstandings if you look right at the person (or people) you converse with.
- Resist the urge to dominate. You want to get your point across, but dominating the conversation and interrupting others will only frustrate them. This includes changing the subject in the middle of a conversation. You will not effectively hear what someone is saying if you must have the majority of the spotlight.
- Avoid interrupting. Going along with the temptation to dominate, avoid the temptation of interrupting when others talk.
- After you have a turn speaking, pause. Pause for a moment or a few seconds. Let the other person have a turn. Make a conscious effort to listen to every last word. After they have their turn, pause again before speaking your turn.
- Ask for clarification. Rather than trying to interpret or analyze the information spoken, if you don’t fully understand, ask the speaker to clarify. Either ask further questions or poignantly ask, “What do you mean?”
- Be comfortable with silence. People often think that a few moments of silence implies awkwardness, when in fact it defines comfort ability. Comfort ability equals confidence; therefore leaders are more confident because they are equally comfortable with silence.
- Be more interested than interesting. Instead of chatting away about anything, try listening to others. You will learn great stories and points of view, opinions and many interesting things just by shutting up and listening.
How costly is not listening?
Listening goes beyond being just a bad habit. Whether you realize it or not, not listening could be costing you actual dollars and cents. Knowing that not listening could cost you monetarily should give you even more incentive to hone in on your listening skills. That should be enough to refine this very important sense you were born to use. If you’re in business, not listening could be hitting your bottom line. If you are a leader in a prominent position – such as a doctor, politician or CEO of a large company – not listening could be costing you errors, clients or promotions. Not listening definitely affects your wallet and could potentially cost you thousands. Errors to fix, clients that disappear, promotions that get offered to other candidates; not listening could even cost you entire relationships.
According to this formula (as an example), not listening could cost you and your business much more than you even realize.
Formula to determine cost of not listening
- Assuming 1 listening mistake per day per employee; at a cost of $20 per mistake
- Multiply the number of employees X $20 = Cost per day
- Let’s say you have 100 employees X $20 = $2,000 per day; or $10,000 per week
- Now multiply $10,000 per week X 52 weeks = $520,000 per year.
So you see, listening well is of the utmost importance for every aspect of your life. Your relationships, communications, career and financial matters all rely on this must-have skill. Make small strides every day, starting with a consciousness of not listening as an undesirable personality trait. Learn more about how listening can pan out for you in various ways throughout your adulthood and how this most important characteristic can make the difference between being a leader or being the one who is constantly passed by.
- Choose 1 of the 9 ways to listen better and apply the new behavior for the next two weeks.
- Inform others of your intent to improve your listening and ask them to provide feedback on how your listening is improving.
- Choose another of the 9 ways to improve and start the process again.