Are you listening?

Most us of think we are pretty good listeners. After all, how hard can it be? It’s merely the flip side of speaking.

It appears the art of good listening is a lot harder than we think, and many of us aren’t so good at it after all. According to Forbes Magazine, scores of studies have demonstrated that people accurately comprehend or internalize only about 25% to 50% of what they hear.

Not much to write home about, particularly when you consider all of the meetings that take place in businesses every day and the wise – presumably “informed” – collective decisions that they are supposed to produce.

So why don’t we listen as well as we should? What gets in the way?  To begin with, human beings can listen at a much faster speed than they can speak. Our normal speaking rate is about 125 to 150 words per minute. As listeners, we can “think” at about 500 words per minute.

The problem here is that the listener’s mind wanders. We’ve all been there, distracted by something in our environment:  one of the speaker’s ears is bigger than the other; or we are wondering where he got his shirt, which reminds us that we have to pick up our dry cleaning.  We are not really paying attention. If asked to paraphrase what we’ve just been told, we can’t. And that’s where problems can arise. If you can’t accurately play the message back, you probably didn’t get it.

Another common obstacle to good listening is that, in comparing the importance of speaking versus listening, we see speaking as an act of power and consider listening to be submissive. Put another way, bosses do the talking while employees do the listening. (In one study, which asked thousands of employees to identify the most serious fault observed in executives, 68% identified that fault as the boss’s failure to listen to them.)

A third obstacle, and arguably the most common and annoying, is when a listener doesn’t let the speaker finish, or is busy mentally planning a rebuttal. What is clear in such situations is that the listener doesn’t really value the speaker’s opinion.  She’s impatiently waiting to air her opinion which, naturally, is the more important, and hears hardly anything at all.

We all know someone like this. And sometimes that someone is us.

Being an effective listener is the hallmark of good communicators and leaders, but it takes concentration and effort. When you get really good at it, you’ll be able to hear what isn’t beingsaid. And this is a skill worth every bit as much as great oratory. Some would say even more.

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