Effective listening – the secret to successful communication

Posted by on July 10, 2013

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Effective listening does not come easy

Are you a ‘good’ listener?  According to my research, most of us are not ‘effective listeners’.

I know that from time to time, when someone is talking, my thoughts are elsewhere and I am not really taking in what they are saying.

Sometimes the problem can be a distraction in the form of something else that I see, hear, or even smell.  Other times it can be something that has been said then causes my mind to start thinking about something else.

In other words, the focus of my attention shifts away from what I was hearing and onto something else.

Learning how to listen

The thing is, listening is something that most of us have been doing all of our lives (unless our hearing is seriously impaired).

Listening happens naturally, without even having to think about it.  In fact, of the four communication modes (speaking, hearing, writing, reading), it is the one which involves the least amount of learning ‘how’ to do it.

Now, perhaps that is a part of the problem.  As a comparison, let’s take running.  We all know how to run – again that is something that happened naturally for most of us as we were growing up.

But, the really good runners, like the athletes who go to the Olympic Games and so on, spend countless hours practicing their running!  The reason they do this is to improve their style, or even learn how to change their style, which improves their efficiency.

So, if top athletes need to regularly practice running, do we need to learn (and practice) how to listen?  Let’s just hold that thought for a moment ……  

Why we become distracted

Recently I came across something that helps me understand why I can be distracted or why I shift the focus of my attention when someone is talking (Note: it doesn’t happen all of the time, just sometimes).

A colleague pointed out that the average speaking rate is around 150 words per minute; but our brain is capable of thinking at around 500 to 600 words per minute.

That means that when we are listening to someone speak, only about 25-30% of our brain capacity is needed to ‘catch’ what we are hearing.  So, what happens with the other 70% or so of our brain capacity?

It seems, for me at least, sometimes that ‘spare’ brain capacity is off doing its own thing – getting distracted, thinking about other things, and generally not paying attention (does anyone else identify with that?).

Now, after this enlightenment, I understand why the focus of my attention can be shifted when I am listening to someone talking.

Learning to Listen - Hot Tip Checklist: Be Physically Ready; Be Mentally Ready; Be Receptive; Be Responsive

Effective listening needs our active participation to be successful

The Learning to Listen video (2min:01sec) is on the Free Zap Nuggets Facebook page.

Hearing ≠ Listening

Effective listening is much more than hearing.  Hearing is about sounds – our ears hear the sounds around us; listening is about comprehension – we need to use our brains to make meaning of the sound/s we hear.

If we take a look at the ‘listening’ process, it goes something like this:

  1. perceiving … we become aware of a sound – we hear something
  2. paying attention … we focus on the sound – including the direction to its source
  3. filtering … we may need to ignore distractions (other sounds, sights, smells)
  4. interpreting … we identify the sound and assess its meaning – this may involve comprehending words, or it may entail recognising a particular sound, e.g. a fire siren
  5. responding … we react according to our interpretation of the sound – this may be a spoken response, an action such as moving away from a danger area, or it may be the first step in committing something to memory
Effective listening is a survival skill

I said earlier that listening is something that happens naturally (for most of us).  In fact, effective listening is (and always has been) a ‘survival skill’.

Consider our cavemen ancestors.  As they went about their daily hunting and gathering activities, they would have been listening (and looking) for any sounds of danger, and also of any prey.  Whenever they heard something, whether prey or predator, they had to respond quickly.

Fast forward to a modern ‘hunter gather’ navigating their way about in the concrete jungle of the city.  The GPS is constantly giving voice messages that must not be ignored.  If our hunter-gatherer becomes distracted and fails to respond to an instruction, they will quickly become LOST!

In our workplaces, most communication is spoken.  Information and instructions are usually shared in meetings and other discussions.  How often, when something goes wrong, do we hear that it was a case of ‘miscommunication’?  Dig a bit further, and there’s a good chance that someone either didn’t listen effectively or didn’t clarify effectively (or both).

Back to learning how to listen

Let’s return to the earlier thought about ‘learning how to listen’, and also my realisation about why I can sometimes become distracted.  I can see a connection here – let me explain.

When we were growing up, most of us will have had a parent or a teacher (or maybe both) tell us to “pay attention!”  And for many of us, that is probably the extent of any instruction we have had about listening – ‘pay attention’.

By and large, that is the secret – whether we call it ‘attention’, ‘concentration’, or ‘focus’.  You may have heard ‘paying attention’ described as being ‘the most important learning skill’.  There is research showing that the attention span of an average university student is around 15 minutes; other research shows it can be as low as 3-4 minutes.

But we all know that paying attention is about engagement.  Whether we are watching a movie, attending a lecture, or taking part in a meeting, if things are boring, our attention starts to wander.

So the obvious question is: ‘how do I learn to pay attention?’  I will address that in our next Post.

Effective listening versus Active listening

A Google search for ‘effective listening’ will show that there is an abundance of information available on the web.   Some of it is good, some of it is not-so-good, and some of it is quite confusing.  This is where we need to apply some principles of Information Literacy.

The search will also return the term ‘active listening’.  Most definitions of either ‘effective listening’ or ‘active listening’ include the need to offer the speaker confirmatory feedback.  In general, business tends to use ‘active listening’, while universities (etc.) tend to use ‘effective listening’.  In the majority of cases, the two terms are virtually interchangeable.

Hot tips for effective listening

Hot tips for effective listening (aka ‘active listening’) include:

Be Physically ready

  • Stop talking – prepare to listen
  • Adopt an attentive posture – your body language shows your interest, ‘lean in’
  • Maintain eye contact (but don’t stare) – use a genuine smile

Be Mentally ready

  • Focus your attention on what is being said – where possible remove or avoid any distractions
  • Put the Speaker at ease – use gestures or words as positive reinforcement (but not too much)
  • Show Patience – do not interrupt or finish a sentence
  • Try to be impartial – avoid being influenced by your personal likes/dislikes

Be Receptive

  • Listen for ideas and concepts (not just words) – look for context and connections, the full picture
  • Listen to the tone – tone, pitch, and volume will reveal emphasis and emotion
  • Watch for non-verbal signs to confirm what is spoken – posture, gestures, facial expressions

Be Responsive

  • Make notes – about the main points and also items you need to clarify
  • Use clarifying questions to resolve any uncertainties or vagueness
  • Repeat or paraphrase back the main points to confirm your understanding
  • Summarise the key points in your own words, including any actions to be taken

Our free nuggets for this Post are two short videos and a short read:

Listening Well BNET video (Dec 29, 2008) from Leila Bulling Towne – although this is a bit old, it is worth a look as Leila offers four tips for good listening [3min:35sec]

Active Listening video (Jun 20, 2010) from Ricky Lien of Mindset Media in Singapore, giving a brief take on active listening (and filmed in one of my favourite haunts – Raffles Place) [1min:29sec]

Three Keys to Listening Success (May 14, 2013) post from Sheri Jeavons at Power Presentations, this is about a 2½ minute read

Coming next:  How to improve your attention span

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