Are You Listening?

Yesterday my clock radio came to life at precisely at 6:15 a.m., just as I had instructed it the night before. Instead of an alarm - who wants to be jolted awake by a jarring buzz next to your head - I was awakened by what some would consider equally as jarring - the frenzied chatter of a morning radio team. As I was easing into consciousness the station's entertainment reporter listed the celebrity news of the previous weekend. At one point she mentioned that singer Hilary Duff became engaged to Canadian hockey player Mike Comrie, who popped the question while the two were vacationing in Hawaii. After some lighthearted banter on the topic the DJ asked whether Comrie was part of the Olympic team that was currently playing in Vancouver. His question struck me immediately. "Wasn't he listening?" I mumbled to myself. She said Comrie had proposed in Hawaii so it would be pretty tricky to plan a romantic escape with your girlfriend while simultaneously battling for a gold medal 2,700 miles away.

As my morning routine continued, and with the Olympic theme now fresh in my mind, I recalled the opening ceremonies that were held about a week earlier. I watched the broadcast on NBC, with Bob Costas and Matt Lauer providing the commentary. As the Canadian team entered the arena amid boisterous cheers from the home crowd, Matt Lauer mentioned the team's audacious goal to "own the podium" in Vancouver, and noted that some people in the country considered this public pledge to achieve victor very un-Canadianlike behavior. I was still pondering that when a few minutes later, as the large Canadian contingent marched on, Bob Costas said the exact same thing. I don't mean he paraphrased Matt, or that he summarized what Matt said. No, he repeated it word for word, verbatim. There was no, "As Matt said a moment ago..." or "To reiterate what Matt said..." It was clear that Bob wasn't listening to what Matt had said just moments earlier.

Later that same morning as my wife was heading out the door I said to her, "Did you feed the dogs?" She stopped, paused (no doubt to gain her composure), then uttered a line that if you're married you've no doubt been on the stinging end of hundreds of times: "Didn't you listen to me!" She went on to explain that just five minutes earlier she had asked me to feed the dogs and apparently I had complied, although at this point I had zero recall of the exchange. It turns out I'm not alone, studies suggest we humans tend to listen at about a 25% comprehension rate, but if I'm any indication that number is apparently even lower around the house.

I would suggest that we live amidst an epidemic of poor listening, whether at home or at work. Some of the causes for this dearth of listening are biological, while others are uniquely germane to our modern world. One of the innate reasons we have difficulty listening is the fact that we tend to talk at a rate of somewhere between 125 and 175 words per minute, while we listen at a rate of 125 and 250 words a minute, but we're capable of thinking at a staggering 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute. That gulf between thinking and listening opens up a huge opportunity for our brains to become distracted and cease paying any attention to a speaker in our midst. The dazzling array of technology we have at our fingertips doesn't help either. As a consultant who regularly works with groups of people I know how difficult it is to compete for attention with Blackberries, iPhones, and every other ringing, buzzing, and singing tool of mass distraction.

This is a battle we can't afford to lose, the stakes are simply too high. We spend seven out of every ten minutes communicating with someone. At the office, 45% of our time is spent ‘listening.' And what got us our jobs in the first place? Probably our unique skill set for which we can thank listening, because 85% of what we know we learned through the simple act of listening. If you no longer wish to retain the job listening helped you get and decide to leave, studies suggest you pulled the plug because you felt you weren't listened to, and therefore not appreciated.

You may have heard some of these statistics before, or at the very least have been warned about the perils of not listening effectively, but perhaps told yourself, "That's not me, I'm a great listener." If you are you're definitely in the minority, because as I've noted above the deck is strongly stacked against successful listening, and just a scant 2% of us have received formal listening education. For those of you willing to confront your listening deficit, before you sign up for ‘Listening 101' at your local Community College, try these simple tips to improve your skills.

Go Gadget Free:

I wrote in my last book that asking participants to part with their phones before a workshop is akin to depriving them of oxygen, but let's face it, a buzzing Blackberry is an enormous temptation, and upon answering or pecking out a text response our attention to the speaker becomes practically non-existent. Go to your next meeting armed not with your smart phone but with the intention of concentrating solely on the speaker, or speakers, and experience the liberating freedom of pure focus that results from such a choice.

Be Present:

When conducting workshops with clients my top priority and number one goal is to be completely present for them during the session. That means crowding all competing thoughts out of my head, while paying strict attention to, and processing, what they're saying. Believe me, it can be a hard fought battle at times. I may have a tight connection at the airport that night, other client responsibilities to attend to, issues at home that have be dealt with, the list is endless. But just before each meeting I tell myself that for the next three hours, eight hours, whatever it is, when I have a competing thought I will ignore it. It takes practice and a heaping dose of discipline but over time I've become better and better at the practice to the point where I now feel when I'm in a meeting my focus is exactly where it should be - on helping my clients, and I can only do that when I'm present for them.

Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood:

Sound familiar? If you're a fan of Steven Covey's work it should be as it's one of his 7 habits of highly effective people. How often when engaged in a conversation do we rush the speaker, rudely interrupt, or finish her sentence for her? These are hallmarks of not seeking first to understand but instead stampeding the speaker with our own selfish motives to be heard. A simple way to ensure you understand a speaker's position is to summarize what they've said to their satisfaction. Notice I said ‘their' satisfaction. If you're providing a rote summary that parrots a few words or even strings together a phrase they used that's not understanding. Take the time to thoughtfully convey in your own words what you perceive as the meaning of what the speaker just said, regardless of whether or not you agree with their position. Once they concur that you've captured the essence of their comments, you're ready to provide your own point of view. You'll be amazed at how this will facilitate an effective dialog.

Listen With Your Eyes:

Hearing a speaker is just one part of the equation. Many studies suggest that over 90% of effective communication is determined by non-verbal cues. Train yourself to become more proficient at reading the clues provided by such things as eye contact (or lack thereof), posture, hand and foot movements, etc. As a speaker I rely heavily on these tools to help me convey my message to audiences. When I see people avoiding eye contact, shifting in their chairs, or checking their phones I know it's time for a break. Conversely when the audience is looking me right in the eye, subtly mimicking my movements, and sitting upright in their chairs I know they're focused on my message and sincerely engaged.

A favorite author of mine, Ernest Hemingway, one noted: "I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." I believe he's right on both counts - truly listening is a pathway to learning, and sadly most people never do really listen. Following the simple tips outlined above will help you cross the hearing versus listening chasm and in so doing improve your communications, enhance dialogs with family and co-workers, and open your mind to a world of possibilities. That's all I have time to share on listening, I think my wife said something about feeding the dogs...?

Are You Listening?


 "It is not the presentation but the discussion and action taken on these topics that matters most."