“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”--Leo Buscaglia
Every time I give an assignment to my college students, I ask if they have questions. At first, everyone is hesitant, but in a moment or two, the questions begin. And that’s fine. What I find somewhat disconcerting, though, is that most of the questions reveal that the students haven’t really listened to my explanation, even though they appeared to have been attentive.
I realize many of us need to hear something more than once to understand and process it, and I’m not faulting my students for that. What bothers me is that in school and elsewhere, I’ve noticed most people don’t make much of an attempt to listen to others. In fact, I believe we are in the midst of a non-listening epidemic that is affecting the quality of our relationships, costing businesses thousands of dollars every year, and producing mediocre learning in our schools.
Most of what we learn, we learn by listening. Yet research shows that most of us aren’t good listeners. In their book, Excellence in Business Communication, Thill and Bovee write, “Listening is a far more complex process than most people think. .. . most of us listen at or below a 25 percent efficiency rate, remember only about half of what’s said during a 10-minute conversation, and forget half of that within 48 hours.”
It isn’t surprising that we don’t listen effectively. First of all, most of us haven’t been taught how to do so. We learn how to read and write but not how to listen. Secondly, we juggle so many activities on the job and at home that we don’t give much thought to listening. It’s speaking that takes priority. Yet mastering listening skills is critical if we are to become good communicators.
Cheesebro, O’Connor, and Rios write in Communication Skills, “People are fired, customers are lost, and working relationships are strained because of ineffective listening. Likewise, friendships suffer, marriages fail, and families grow apart when individuals fail to listen with genuine concern.”
The good news is you can improve your listening skills. By learning about the process and putting forth a conscious effort, you can become an effective listener.
The following ten guidelines, adapted from Thill and Bovee’s book, will help you become a better listener:
- Minimize both internal and external distractions. You can’t always get rid of a headache, but you can close the windows if the driver of a truck is outside revving his engine.
- Adjust your listening to the situation. If you’re listening to a lecture for an exam in Biology class, you’ll want to pay closer attention than if you’re watching the local news. In the former situation, you’ll probably take notes.
- Show you’re listening by your nonverbal communication. You might nod, shake your head, or raise your eyebrows. Adjust your posture accordingly. Make eye contact.
- If you’re listening to a speech or attending a business meeting, determine the most important points and develop a method to remember them. You might repeat them mentally or even jot them down briefly.
- When you’re listening to a friend with a problem, demonstrate empathy. Show her you understand what she is going through.
- Realize that people don’t necessarily want you to solve their problem. They may simply want to share how they are feeling. Save advice for another time, unless you’re asked for it.
- Don’t interrupt. Let the person finish what he is saying before you explain your point of view or ask questions.
- Don’t prejudge a person’s message by the way he looks. You can learn something from almost anyone.
- Stay focused on the subject. It’s easy to let your mind wander, especially if the subject isn’t important to you. Train yourself to concentrate.
- Remain clearheaded, even if the topic is emotional. Perhaps someone is discussing the victories of the recent election, and you were passionate about a losing candidate. When emotions become involved, you may end up in the middle of a shouting match, which will resolve nothing. Present your points calmly. You’ll gain credibility by doing so.
It isn’t always easy to listen, especially when we are preoccupied with fifteen different things that needed doing an hour ago or when we simply aren’t interested in what the other person is saying. But making the effort pays off. Listening can provide a bond of intimacy that deepens our connection to others. It can enrich our personal relationships and help us make fewer mistakes in our jobs. It can increase our learning potential. And it might even earn you a special compliment: “I really like Jane. She’s such a good listener.”