I Have a Secret. Are you listening?

By Merrick Rosenberg

“We say it to our kids, we say it to our spouse, and we really want to say it our manager (but we know better). Are you listening to me?

And when I say, “listening,” I mean really listening, not half-listening while you’re checking your email and talking to me on the phone. The Chinese character for listen is comprised of three others characters, those representing ear, eye, and heart. Listening is a whole-body experience in which the listener is fully present to the speaker.

We all know what it takes to be a good listener. In fact, I start my listening skills training programs by having participants share the characteristics of effective listeners. The class easily lists behaviors such as: stopping all other activities, maintaining eye contact, nodding to convey understanding, questioning to gather more data, and paraphrasing to ensure accurate interpretation. So then why do people need to be trained on listening if they already know what to do to be a good listener?

The answer is simple. We all know what it takes to listen well, but there is often a large gap between what we know and what we do. Essentially, people simply need to decide to be good listeners. That’s it. The secret is out. Effective listening is driven more by will, then it is driven by skill.

I meet many people who know that they are not good listeners. They wear it like a badge of honor. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who had the power to return home all along, so too can people be good listeners. The power is already inside you. The decision is yours.

So why then don’t people make the decision when we know that effective listening demonstrates respect and helps to make sure that messages are received correctly? First of all, people speak at a average of 150 words per minute, but our brains can process information at about 500 words per minute. Think about it. You can pick up every word spoken by an auctioneer…if you really focus and remain present. In other words, we tune out when listening because we have excess brain capacity that causes the mind to wander away from the speaker. And when the mind wanders, we don’t pick up on what is being communicated.

We all have the power to be good listeners, if we choose to be. Imagine that a doctor is telling a parent what is wrong with their sick child. Will that parent be 100% present and pick up everything said by the doctor? You better believe it! They are focused because they made the choice to be focused. I bet they won’t even be checking their e-mail on their Blackberry while the doctor is talking.

The difference between the scenario above and those typical in the office is that the parent made the decision to be a good listener. We have this power every minute of every day. We just need to reclaim it.

In countless communication skill workshops, I have witnessed managers argue vehemently that they do not have the time to listen to everyone who wants to speak with them…as if this justifies their disrespectful listening behaviors.

Studies have found that 70% of workplace mistakes are caused by breakdowns in communication. We all know that poor listening behaviors contribute to many of those breakdowns. I would argue that if you don’t have the time to listen well the first time, you really won’t have time the second.

Consider the following listening habits. Are you guilty of any of these?

  • Multi-tasking while someone is speaking to you
  • Interrupting the speaker.
  • Not looking at the speaker.
  • Thinking about what you’re going to say while the speaker is talking.
  • Saying you understand before the speaker is finished.
  • Sharing a solution before the speaker finished describing the problem.
  • Faking attention (“uh huh” is a dead give-away that you’re not listening).
  • Topping the speaker’s story with your own.

Being hearing impaired is a physical condition; Being listening impaired is a self-imposed condition. Effective listening requires commitment.

The secret is out. Did you hear it?