The Necessary Skill of Listening

Before you start reading what I hope will be an insightful article, I would like to invite you to spend 5 minutes and do the following exercise:

Remove all distractions near you – particularly your smartphone – then try to empty your mind of those wandering thoughts, close your eyes and just listen. I’ll wait.

If you’re like most people, then you probably managed to capture an array of sounds, like the awkward vibrations from your air conditioning, the water dripping in the sink, or perhaps the birds chirping in a nearby tree. It is also likely that some visual sensations were triggered as well. However, what is perhaps more interesting is that you only now realized what was “playing in the background”. It’s almost like you needed to be triggered to recognize that.

In fact, you did.

This simple activity, used by trainers and facilitators worldwide almost always yields the same results. The key learning point is that, unlike hearing, which is simple access to acoustic information, listening is a more complex psychological procedure that involves interpreting and understanding the significance of a sensory experience.

Consequently, listeningis an acquired skill that allows you to attach meaning to sounds.

Why Listening Matters

Amidst the age of reality, life has become too loud and too noisy.

That is perhaps one reason that explains why we are losing whatever remains of our mediocre listening abilities. The tools – like digital recorders and voice notes we have developed to capture sounds are an attestation to that statement.

As Social Media evolved, chatting replaced dialogue, and “sound bytes” overthrew reports. Consequently, listening arguably became THE most undermined business skill of all.

Nonetheless, we know that listening is quintessential to acquire and master because it allows you to truly connect with and understand others. It helps unveil consumer insights and enables empathy and rapport building, which are crucial to understand your peers’ and customers’ needs.

Additionally, excellent listeners enjoy the following benefits:

–      Better understanding and proactive conflict transformation.

–      Greater appreciation as a person.

–      Superior, faster and more efficient results.

–      Enhanced relationships on the professional and person fronts.

–      Higher customer conversion rates due to genuine interest.

–      Improved problems solving skills.

–      Cultivated data-driven decision making.

–      Developed leadership and management skills.

Moreover, listening skills will improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade and negotiate.

Maybe we don’t listen because we simply can’t

As we explored in the beginning, the mere desire to truly listen enrolls our brain’s cognitive abilities by triggering concentration and focus, both of which come at an extremely high mental cost. That alone makes us genetically predisposed to refrain from tackling this energy-depleting activity. Such is our daily curse.

Renowned international speaker and self-proclaimed “Business Sound Expert” Julian Treasure argues we consciously spend roughly 60% of our time exposed to some form of auditory stimuli, however, we are only able to retain 25% of that, at best.

Our physical capacity to listen allows us to do that at a rate of only 125 – 250 words per minute.

At the same time, we can think at 1000 – 3000 words per minute and that makes things even worse as it means that when you talk to your managers, colleagues or customers for just 30 minutes, they typically only capture about 7 minutes in total.

Now turn this around and ironically, you may realize that when you are being presented information, you are not getting the entire message either. One would hope that the important parts of the conversation are in the captured part, but what if they’re not?

This also explains why your spouse is probably correct when he or she tells you that you were not listening and vice versa.

Though we are constantly exposed to sound, the evidence suggests we are bad listeners.

Common listening barriers

In addition to the aforementioned issues, there are other barriers that typically prevent listening. These include:

–      Biases: The Confirmation Bias or “deciding on the outcome and then looking for validation” and The Self-Serving Bias (“I am always right and superior to others”), are excellent examples of internal obstacles to listening.

–      The Multitasking Illusion: Unless you have some sort of neurological disorder or deficiency, you cannot multitask. I repeat: You cannot multitask. You may think you can, but you’re simply spreading your focus and resources on two or more actions and that defeats the purpose. It is also why it prevents you from listening.

–      Self-Talk Rehearsals: Though self-talk can be very positive, people often prepare and rehearse responses to formulated assumptions before allowing the other person to finish. The late Stephen R. Covey was probably right when he wrote that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

–      Interruptions: Interruptions are another interesting behavior that greatly prevents people from listening. Typically, people interrupt you because they either want to express the outcome of their self-talk or attempt to complete your sentences (which is the same thing). Most of us are probably just as guilty of that as others are.

–      Lack of Time: If you don’t have time, you won’t listen because your mind has already wandered elsewhere. It’s a simple as that. Furthermore, if you are impatient, then it makes it worse and might even lead you to adopt an overly defensive attitude.

How can you become a better listener?

In order to sharpen your listening skills, you must first understand that a specific mindset is required to achieve your objective. This involves two primordial matters: Making a clear commitment with your future self and persevering until you eventually succeed.

Here’s how you could start:

Before engaging with someone

–      Put all your electronic devices away. Keeping your smartphone on silent/vibrate mode, or using your laptop to take notes does NOT count. Let me make this clear: Put them away.

–      Refrain from making any assumptions about what the person will say and avoid “rehearsing” conversations.

–      Decide that you will only speak for 15%-20% of the time.

–      We already know from science that our memory is not that good. Therefore, avoid relying on it for questions/topics you want to cover. Instead, make a list on your notepad.

–      Practice mindfulness.

During the engagement

–      Take notes to stay focused while listening. Headlines are enough.

–      Paraphrase what you capture from the other and ask to ensure you correctly understood.

–      Rule of thumb: open-ended questions allow you to get more information, while closed-ended questions work best for confirmation. Ask clarifying questions to sharpen the focus of the conversation.

–      Observe the speaker’s body language and facial expressions.

–      Use pauses to either reflect, or draw out more information.

Anchoring the Listening habit

Transcending listening to the real of habit is a completely different story. However, it is possible if you decide to regularly practice. Some excellent exercises include:

Exercise #1: Silence

Repeat the exercise described at the beginning of the article for a period of 15 minutes.

The basis of this exercise lies in the practices of yoga and meditation and has been proven by numerous studies to have a physical effect on the brain, if done on a regular basis.

This will allow you to “reset and “recalibrate”. If silence per say is not available in your environment, go for “quiet”.

Exercise#2: The August Rush Technique

In the eponymous movie, the protagonist is a musical genius able to listen to the “music all around us” and finds meaning from mundane sounds like traffic, washing machines, yelling salespeople, etc.

Listening: Use it or Lose it

I cannot say it enough: Listening is an acquired skill.

The term “acquired” is key here as it suggests we are not born with it, and that we need to constantly practice to enhance it. In HR terms, it is a competency that only a handful of people are trained on. The converse is equally true: much like a muscle, irregular training will ineluctably lead to listening dilution. In the end, we only truly listen if we allow others to influence us.

Perhaps the most important insight is that, when sufficiently trained, listening enables true learning.

I would like to leave you with this thought that was brilliantly illustrated in a 1947 article titled “Passing The Hot Potato”[1], in which J.P. McEnvoy wrote the following:

“Son, you’ll do all right in this world if you just remember that when you talk you are only repeating what you already know—but if you listen you may learn something.”


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One Comment;

  1. fadi akiki said:

    Nice article. Very Well structured, straightforward and easy to understand.
    The author highlighted a subject that is obvious to everyone, but no one pays attention to its importance in our daily life.