Published: Working World

The Powerhouse Example

A local “powerhouse” at a recent luncheon taught me an important business lesson. Observing her made it clear to me why she was so successful. She listened. I don’t mean she just “heard,” I mean she really listened. She listened with every fiber of her being. Every single person at the table was captivated. Why? Because with her listening skills, she made all of us feel that that we were important.

After observing this powerhouse in action, I decided that I, like so many other people, have taken this skill for granted. Assuming that listening is basically the same as hearing is a dangerous misconception. It led me to believe that effective listening is instinctive. This is not true.

The Brain Takes a Break
To become good listeners, we must first understand why so many of us are such poor listeners. It is well researched that, on average, we speak at a rate of 150 words per minute, but our minds process four times faster at 500 to 600 words per minute. Frequently, our brain simply takes a break from the conversation. It becomes bored.

Listening half-heartedly has become a fine art for many of us. We tune out to think about all the work piled on our desk, the proposal still needing to be written, what we’re cooking for dinner. And then, we quickly tune back into the conversation, picking up a few sentences, then tune out once again. Fortunately, since we think so much faster than we talk, it is possible to use our magnificent thinking machine, the brain, to become better listeners.

Missing Most of the Conversation
Listening can’t be a passive exercise-it must be active. Great concentration is absolutely necessary. It requires slowing your brain down, paying attention to every word, facial expression, tone of voice and gesture. Active listening isn’t easy, but it is well worth the effort.

In business, we spend more than 50% of our time communicating, with a lot of this time directly attributed to listening. Research studies indicate that we only listen with 25-50% efficiency. This means 50-75% of what we hear is never processed. We miss, in fact, most of the conversation!

Why Do We Tune Out So Often?
Frequently, we think we already know what the speaker is going to say, so we just listen with one ear. At other times we think we know more about a particular situation than the speaker, so we unconsciously block hearing. Sometimes the speaker’s lack of communication skills makes listening difficult.

To become an active, engaged listener, we must learn to listen with two ears, tune in to receive, hold our own thoughts in suspense and stop rehearsing what we’re going to say next.

The Body Language Advantage

Good listening demands that we not only understand what is said but what is truly meant behind the words spoken. Skilled listeners must be sensitive to non-verbal signals. Studies indicate that we communicate 7% with words, 38% through tone of voice and 55% with facial expressions, posture and gestures.

This isn’t surprising, when we consider that body language has a 50,000-year evolutionary jump on the spoken word. Added to that, virtually every normal person learns non-verbal communication long before speech. As an embryo in our mother’s womb, we are sensitive to her moods. Then, as babies, we learn to make our needs known through crying and facial expression as well as arm and leg gestures. It is only much later in our development that communication takes place with words. Since non-verbal communication is learned in an intimate fashion and at an earlier age than words, it makes sense that we all are normally more attuned to this style of communication.

Crafting Your Response
Very few of us really listen to others. Usually, we are far too busy thinking about what gem we are going to say next. It has, unfortunately, become common today for conversation to be nothing more than the practice of two people simply taking turns talking. A University of Minnesota researcher first pointed out this tendency. Tom Peters in Thriving on Chaos gave us the best advice on this subject: “Shut up. Shut up. You are here to listen.”

Active Listening Reduces Stress

Good listeners are generally people oriented, because listening is our finest way of expressing concern. The value, interest and commitment you place in a person are demonstrated by actively, empathetically and attentively listening.

An AT&T study dramatically demonstrated the importance of listening. They studied a group of middle- and upper-level executives as the company was preparing for divestiture to assess how the changes occurring within the organization affected them. The executives most able to handle the stress were those who received strong support from their bosses.

It was additionally revealed that married men adapted more successfully than single men (and we’re sure this would hold true for woman as well!). Why? It seems that married men went home to their wives, where they shared work concerns and fears, while single men had no similar communication vehicle in place. Of additional significance to us is that, when wives not only listened empathetically but also then pointed their husbands towards positive action, these men adapted to change even better than husbands whose wives simply listened.

There is no other single goal we can set for ourselves that will help us become more effective at work and personally than listening. It will reduce the distortion of information flowing to us, thus enabling a better decision process. By listening more effectively, we will be more likely to quickly detect problems in our office and our personal life. As committed listeners, we will hear more because everyone will have more confidence in sharing information. Try the following tips and become a better listener:

  • Good eye contact will form a bond that encourages the speaker.
  • Never assume that you know what the speaker is going to say.
  • Summarize what is said to avoid miscommunication. This will also dramatically improve your concentration.
  • Listen with patience so that you give speakers a fair amount of time to explain their point of view.
  • Listen with your body turned toward the speaker; leaning slightly forward shows involvement.
  • Be sensitive to non-verbal cues; be an observer.
  • Assume that you MISUNDERSTOOD what is said and keep checking what you hear with questions requiring clarification.
  • Indicate you understand the speaker by responding both verbally and non-verbally.
  • Determine your own biases and make a conscious effort to listen with openness and logic.
  • When possible, encourage positive action. Try always to point the way to the high road.

Tom Peters says it most profoundly; “There are many who would say that unvarnished listening is the chief distinguisher between leadership success and failure, especially in times when the empowerment of everyone is paramount. Oddly enough, to listen, per se, is the single best tool for empowering large numbers of others.”

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