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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Please, Take Time To Listen

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."    Robert McCloskey

We all have times that we just don't want to listen. We feel entitled to ignore the message because we have heard it many times before or because we feel we don't need the information or because we just don't feel like treating someone's words with common respect. Even when the coach or mentor begs "Listen up!" our mind's voice says, "Been there, done that." After all, we always get many opportunities to hear the same vital information, don't we?

These days we can easily suffer from "message overload" when so much content strikes our already full ears. Retention becomes impossible, and we zone out any more interference. Anyway, we are usually preoccupied with so much in general that good listening becomes difficult. The job, the economy, the family, the bills, the schedule -- all take priority before simplistic, well-meaning conversation. Besides, active listening is simply hard work: it taxes our patience, requires continuous concentration, and raises our anxiety levels as we begin to think about how to reply in a civil, courteous manner.

Even when we are listening we are continually chattering in our brains. We are formulating an answer or reacting to what is being said. We all want to talk, but so few wish to listen. We should listen; this we know. But, how much time do we devote to careful listening in our language processes? We have filled our lives with knowledge, beliefs, and opinions, which lead to prejudgments.

And, how about all that external noise around us? We are bombarded by environments that feature multiple sights and sounds. We easily get distracted by the movements and gestures of other people as we occupy spaces in which interruptions detract from our ability to hear clearly. Cell phones, computers, Ipods and 24/7 television invade our spaces. Even in places meant to be conducive to conversation, media devices blare, and we simply nod our heads in apparent approval of unheard moving mouths. For example, many sports bars now feature 50 or 60 televisions tuned to different channels for our so-called "pleasurable viewing convenience." There, we feel caught in strobes of images and sounds as we meet and greet our friends with largely artificial conversation. If we don't have hearing problems before entering these establishments, we have them upon exiting.

Then, we are always cognizant of those who speak to win advantage. Our listening is their benefit in such one-way conversations. We simply detest beginning to listen because we know doing so has punched our ticket to enter a long, drawn-out harangue of immense proportions. Congress has convened and we are caught in a filibuster promising no swift, gracious relief. Soon, our ears simply shut down as our mind wanders to some more pleasant subject.

The point is -- a million legitimate reasons to ignore a message exist. All we have to do is choose one, not wear the same reason out, and practice appropriate expressions and gestures of deaf approval. Deceptive communication abounds.After all, no one knows when a woman's beautiful smile is meant to carve tiny pieces from a man's heart or when a man's burly hug for his woman is synonymous with a python's deadly squeeze. Many cannot express their thoughts without emotion and body language, and many more don't have the skills required for listening.

Some Listening Research

Joel Rubinson's marketing research ("Transforming Research Through Listening," Advertising Research Foundation, 2009) noted, "Listening reveals insights via social and open-book approaches.  Listening is about studying the change-makers (people) in a way that is native to how they are increasingly living their lives. We must learn how to add listening to our survey-based approaches for generating anticipatory insights. Listening for the unexpected should be at the heart of the innovation process."

Rubinson's research is based on some amazing findings by Charles H. Swanson:

"Effectiveness in teaching and learning depends primarily on listening. Curriculum studies reveal that inclusion of listening as a subject to be taught is rare. While listening may be included as a unit within elementary or secondary classrooms, no specific instruction can be confirmed. The vast majority of America's college students can and do graduate without any listening training. Research about listening remains a minuscule portion of the research produced in the United States. Current research on listening, especially listening in the classroom, reveals a sense of idiosyncrasy: topics appear determined almost by chance. Teachers need to be trained in how to listen as well as in how to teach listening. While listening is an essential factor in classroom learning, few studies have examined that skill. In spite of the general lack of concern for classroom listening, efforts are being made to identify competencies of listening. The need and opportunity to study listening in the classroom are great."  ("Who's Listening In the Classroom? A Research Paradigm," Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Listening Association -16th, Sacramento, CA, March 14-16, 1996).

Consider this -- as we really listen, there are no reactions. There is no thinking. There is no talking. Listening is not judging. Listening involves being humble, so no "me" takes the stage. There is no "What I want to say." Pure listening is very revealing and extremely informative. In contrast, when we are not listening, we are preventing  opportunity through closing our minds. We exhibit a great lack of intelligence by not listening. In brief, the better at listening we become, the more productive we will be in our careers and in our lives. Talk show host Larry King once said, "I never learned anything while I was talking." We should consider this simple fact.

Most of Us Are Not Great Listeners

In fact, it is difficult to admit it, but most of us (like me) are pretty bad listeners. But, a lot of people are just terrible listeners. Questioning our listening ability is actually the first step towards realizing our full potential – not merely as communicators but also as caring human beings. Listening sets no boundaries. Good listeners, though rare, are incredible assets.

Good listening is built on three basic skills: attitude, attention, and adjustment.These are the skills Walter Parks calls "Triple-A Listening." Active listening is actually a method of responding that encourages effective communication.

These bits of knowledge are commonly known as the "Ten Commandments of Good Listening": 
  1. Stop talking. Obvious, but not easy.
  2. Put the speaker at ease. Create a permissive, supportive climate in which the speaker will feel free to express himself or herself.
  3. Show a desire to listen. Act interested and mean it.
  4. Remove distractions. External preoccupation is less likely if nothing external is present to preoccupy you.
  5. Empathize. Try to experience to some degree the feelings the speaker is experiencing.
  6. Be patient. Give the speaker time to finish; don't interrupt.
  7. Hold your temper. Don't let your emotions obstruct your thoughts.
  8. Go easy on argument and criticism. Suspend judgment.
  9. Ask questions. If things are still unclear when a speaker has finished, ask questions which serve to clarify the intended meanings.
  10. Stop talking. In case you missed the first commandment.
(K. Davis, Human Behavior at Work, McGraw Hill, 1972)


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