Although we spend approximately 60% of our communication time listening, we only retain 35% of what we hear. Actually, two months after a conversation, we only remember around 25% of what was said. That’s no surprise considering our average eight-second attention span, which makes listening concentration so hard to achieve.
Conscious listening is key to understanding. When we are fully present in conversations, when we really listen, we have a chance to reduce redundancy and clear confusion. Simply put, we understand better. Want to improve the quality of the time you spend in meetings? Listen hard. Want your personal and professional relationships to get better? Listen well.
Read this article to learn 5 habits that will help you really listen, build on conversations, and eventually communicate effectively.
Why listening is so hard
In school, we’re not exactly taught how to listen. While acquiring reading skills is a subject in itself, listening is often neglected. The irony is that later in life we actually listen more than we read. Most often, we are under the impression that we’re listening, but we’re actually just hearing things, while our mind is elsewhere.
Before we get to the part where we can get better, let’s not blame ourselves that much and look closely at the things that keep us from listening.
Let’s face it, sometimes we tend to get too self-involved. Although someone else does the talking, we can’t help making it all about ourselves. Our ego makes us jump in and interrupt just to give our two cents, to moralize, or to throw in a joke. We focus on promoting our self-image instead of listening and contributing to the conversation to the benefit of all participants.
Also, when we listen for too long, we worry that we’ll forget what we want to say. Hence, our attention shifts to what we have to say. We cut short our listening, we jump in with our own perspective before we lose it to the back of our mind.
This shift of focus can sometimes take extreme forms, which detour the interlocutor from the course of conversation. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, is of the opinion that when we approach a discussion thinking only of our own agenda, “our goal is to maneuver and manipulate the conversation and to come out better than the other person.” We’re changing the conversation so that it suits our personal agenda.
With so many things that demand our attention (phones, computers, apps etc.), it’s difficult not to get distracted. We live and work in noisy environments, full of sound channels that inherently prevent us from easily reaching a state of conscious listening.
On the other hand, sometimes we might be experiencing physical, mental or emotional distress that prevents us from paying attention. It’s not that we don’t want to listen, we simply can’t. If we’re not honest about it, our interlocutors will most likely translate our unavailability into lack of intent/interest.
We can’t go wrong if we tell them truth. A reassurance such as “I know it’s important for you to share this with me, but I can’t really focus right now and I want you to have my full attention. Can we discuss about this later?” will put them at ease.
The productivity push
Today’s fast-paced work environment constantly pushes us to be more productive. We are expected to get more work done in less time. So, either we don’t have the time to listen all the way through, or we can’t afford it.
In a TED Talk titled “How to truly listen”, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie said that in the same way that she needs time with her instrument, she needs time with people in order to interpret them. “Not just translate them, but interpret them.”
Glennie was right. We need time not only to internalize what we’re being told, but also to acknowledge and filter the things that are quiet and subtle about our interlocutors.
Our thoughts outpace our words
We think much faster than we talk. In our mind, we are always way ahead. So, as much as we might refrain ourselves from talking, hence interrupting, in our mind we often do that by allowing our personal thoughts to “depart” and build on what is being said.
The moment we start formulating a response in our mind, we stop listening. While we’re way ahead with what we want to say, we remain way behind with what we’re being told. Eventually, the interlocutor’s message passes us by.
5 Habits that will make you a better listener
Unlike in any other form of communication, concentration while listening is the hardest to achieve. However, there are habits you can create so that you can listen conscientiously and build on conversations to the benefit of all participants.
#1 Lend your ear out of curiosity, not generosity.
When you listen as a favor, you’re no really open to embrace new perspectives or to be proven wrong. So, you’re not gaining much, except for an inflated ego maybe (since you’ve been so generous).
Being curious conveys genuine interest and intent, which stimulate your interlocutor to elaborate and share more. Asking questions not only prevents you from falling into the trap of wild guesses and mind reading, but also builds a deeper feeling of engagement and cements the story in the minds of all participants.
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So, you should ask open-ended questions like “How did that make you feel?”. As you’re requesting clarification, your interlocutor will be more likely to express deeper attitudes that will otherwise remain silent in the background.
Also, you should make sure you ask more questions than you give answers. This implies that you pay attention to your talk/listen ratio. This is something you might find hard to observe in the beginning, but you can start by marking down your interventions vs. those of your interlocutors on a piece of paper.
#2 Repeat back, it’s called active listening.
In spite of their aim to bring clarity, conversations sometimes lead to misunderstandings. That’s because people’s ability to understand accurately what someone is saying is frequently hindered by interruptions, distractions preconceived ideas, egos and so on.
To put it simply, your power of understanding starts with your ability to listen. It builds on curiosity, patience, and empathy – skills which you cannot develop overnight; they take time time and determination. However, you can start with a simple exercise called active listening. It’s pretty basic: repeat back to the person talking what you heard. It helps you ensure that you really heard what they intended. At the same time, it shows you’re interested in what is being said.
With a simple question like “If I understood correctly, you said that…, didn’t you?” or small request “Could you repeat that, please?”, the person talking has a chance to revisit their story, reword statements, and clear confusion, while you remember better.
Active listening creates an opportunity for mutual understanding. Because you’re no longer working with assumptions, you’re dealing with certainties. Imagine how effective meetings would be, if team members resorted more often to active listening.
#3 Show non-verbal encouragement.
You need to show your interlocutor that you’re listening.
Sometimes, asking too many questions will break the conversation, in spite of proving you’re genuinely interested in what is being said. However, you can still indicate that you’re paying attention through less intrusive gestures. It can be anything from maintaining eye contact to a reassuring head nod or a friendly “mmmm” or “uh-huh” utterance.
#4 First listen through, then think of your response.
As hard as it you may find it, you need to let the other person finish their message before you respond. When you’re already thinking of an answer while your interlocutor is still speaking, you actually stop listening and miss out on the complete information that is being delivered.
Other than that, if you’re already assuming what the other person is thinking, you’re actually inclined to accept only information that confirms your preconceived opinions. It’s hard not to make assumptions, but it’s better to check them out loud when your interlocutor is done talking.
#5 Refrain from moralizing or passing judgments.
It’s not easy to let the other person talk all the way through, especially when opinions and beliefs clash. But the thing is, when you interrupt someone to label or to argue against what they’re saying, you’re shutting yourself down. When you’re too attached to your knowledge and experience, you’re missing important messages that might reveal a different perspective and teach you new things.
You should also consider that some truths are hard to tell; they require effort and courage. As you cut off your interlocutor to openly express your surprise, shock or fear, you’re inadvertently altering their message. Because your poignant reactions will most likely prompt them to adjust the heart of the matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s just to avoid conflict or distress, or simply to keep themselves in the comfort zone. They are likely to get emotional, to the detriment of the conversation and their own state of mind.
The outcome: they might keep essential/enlightening information from you, they might avoid talking openly to you in the future, they might resent you, whereas you will miss a chance to learn something new.
As hard as you might find it to let the other person talk, show some empathy. Even if you disagree, suspend your judgment until they’ve walked you through their experience. Put yourself in their shoes, see things from their perspective first and then share yours. You will be surprised at the things you might learn.
A short note for the impatient
Every time you hear yourself more often than the others, you’re not exactly making conversation. You’re doing personal broadcasting. While your audience might learn something from your monologue, you will hardly gain anything from them. Because they won’t have a chance to speak up, and information-wise you’re not really accumulating much.
The imbalanced talk:listen ratio makes the exchange of experience and knowledge unfair. An ideal ratio is 2:1. That’s what you should aim for.
On the other hand, becoming a better listener takes practice and patience. And, if patience is not exactly your strongest point, you can try a quick formula coined by Julian Treasure, sound consultant and author of “Sound Business.” In one of his TED Talks on sound, Treasure recommends a simple technique that you can easily try in both your personal and work conversations. It’s called RASA.
The acronym, which in Sanskrit is a word in itself and means “essence”, is the abbreviation of the following recommendations:
- “RECEIVE” – pay attention to the person talking;
- “APPRECIATE” – make little noises like “hmmm’, “oh”, “OK”;
- “SUMMARIZE” – use “So” to conclude and signal that you’re listening conscientiously;
- “ASK” – ask questions afterwards.
Listening is not inaction
We may hear well, but we don’t always use our ears for conscientious listening. And communication, whether in business or personal relationships, depends more on the spoken word than it does on the written word.
The effectiveness of our communication is dependent not only on how we talk, but also on how we listen. To be good listeners, we must resort to skills that we can acquire either through experience or training.
Aside from a series of habits that you can easily create hopefully with a little support from this article, it’s important to see listening not as inaction. Because keeping silent doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not doing anything. It means you’re paying attention, or at least it should.
In fact, listening allows us to do plenty: we show empathy, we allow the conversation to progress, we encourage our interlocutors to share more, we strengthen relationships, we take a big step towards understanding. And the level of mutual understanding is an indicator for the effectiveness of the communication process, which in the end is something we all strive for, whether at work or in our personal lives.