When I teach Listening in my seminars and workshops, I always like to help introduce the topic by asking the room: Is it possible to hear without listening? Participants always say yes immediately…and, in doing so, their faces seem to instantly recall times they have performed or witnessed very poor listening…despite perfect hearing! Agreed on that, I then ask: Is it possible to listen without hearing? Suddenly there is pause in their faces, differences in their responses and in contemplating an answer to this question the real “Listening” discussion begins!
You want to join this conversation because you know from experience that there is a major difference between “hearing” and “listening”…not just because it is possible to do either without doing the other…and not just because one process is passive while the other is active…and not entirely because one process is physio-logical while the other is psycho-logical but in addition to those distinctions you know there is a difference between “hearing” and “listening” because you experience on a daily basis all the pain of miscommunication that results from poor listening…despite perfect hearing.
Poor listening can lead to many problems in the workplace, including:
The true/total costs of poor listening in the workplace are beyond calculation. The time, money and even human life we lose to poor listening should motivate us to improve, but we don’t.
Meanwhile, just about every workplace victory you can think of will include examples of excellent listening. I believe that success in life and business is ALL about Listening! And, you agree! I mean, everyone knows how important listening is right? But how many of us actively work to improve our listening?
So, this article wants to actually improve YOUR listening. Its first challenge is to get the guilty verdict on our collective ineptitude as listeners. But, listening is like driving (or better yet, parenting) in that it is one of those things that we all believe we are good at yet also believe that everybody else is bad at (or not as good as US anyway). George Carlin explained this ego-centrism best when he explained that everyone on the road driving faster than US is a “maniac” while anyone driving slower than US is a “moron.”
You hope the most important people in your professional life are great listeners (the boss, the client, the vendor, the sub-ordinate, peer or assistant), and you CERTAINLY want the very best listening skills for you children, parents, spouses, friends, teammates/partners, employees, etc. But YOUR listening is just fine, right? Well, if you have the slightest notion that YOUR listening can improve, here are six steps to Listening for Success!!!
STEP ONE: LISTENING WITHOUT HEARING!!!
So, back to our original question: Can we “listen” without hearing? My answer is absolutely YES! Consider these examples:
OK, so I try to have fun when I argue that Step One to improve your listening is to separate and isolate “hearing” from the listening process as a whole. We all know the difference between hearing and listening, right? Consider the beauty of the platitude you may have heard regarding why God gave us one mouth and two ears…because we should do twice as much listening as we do talking. No argument there. The problem with this cliché, however, is that it creates a mental association for us that we “listen with our ears” when what we really do with them is “hear.”
Hearing, alone, is a passive/physiological process of “observing” sound waves, audio waves, etc. Listening, on the other hand, is an ACTIVE/psychological process…and the real difference between hearing and listening is the issue of attention! From among the things we “observe” to which does our get attention paid? Is attention paid at all? If attention is paid, is that an expense or investment? I digress a little here, but will discuss questions of “attention” a bit further below.
STEP TWO: INVITE ALL OF YOUR SENSES TO THE PARTY!
For now, Step two in our efforts to improve our listening is to actually REPLACE the word “hearing” with the word “observing” when discussing the listening process as a whole. Textbooks tell us that Listening, as a process, involves the following six stages or “ing” words (as I call them):
Clearly we engage in the remaining five “ings” after tasting, touching, smelling and seeing as we do after “hearing”? So, when we realize that we can listen to the observations of all our senses (not just hearing) we move towards an understanding of how complex this listening business can be! But, how complex is it?
STEP THREE: THE QUESTIONS of ATTENTION’s INTENTIONS!!!
Well, the amount of information that is “observed” by the senses sub-consciously is estimated at 400 billion bits of data (yes, billion) per second (yes, per second!). Imagine that! Of this amount, researchers estimate that only two thousand are actually brought to consciousness (processed psychologically). This means we have incredible filtering capacity but also begs several questions regarding HOW we filter and WHAT gets filtered…questions about the attention that gets paid or unpaid to all of our observations on a second-to-second, minute-to-minute basis.
So, a Third Step towards listening effectiveness is to ask and answer (for yourself before others) some of the questions of attention:
When asking yourself these and other questions of attention, your answers will most likely be found in the “purposes” of listening.
STEP FOUR: KNOW YOUR PURPOSE!
Returning for a moment to the distinction between hearing and listening, we can see that, like all senses, the primary purpose of hearing is “survival.” The primary reason we can hear (and listen, for that matter) is to protect ourselves from physical danger…first and foremost! So, let’s assume this need for physical survival serves as a first level filter that only 2000 out of 4 billion bits of data “gets through” and into our conscious. Next, let’s assume that the remaining 2000 is screened for physical threat and found to present none. When we (decide we) are not in physical danger, where does the focus of our listening turn? What are the primary “purposes” of listening when we are “safe” physically? That’s right! Emotional!
Our listening will be pointed in the direction of survival first and THEN what will make us “FEEL” the best. Here are the five broad categories that represent our “purposes” for listening:
Can you see how the “bits” that make it into consciousness will fall into one or more of these categorical purposes? Secondly, can you see that these purposes are not mutually exclusive...and therefore how easily can you see that these purposes may be “competing” for attention each second, minute or hour of even the BEST “attention spans?” Therefore, Step Four towards improved listening is to “know your purpose” and be able to continually remind yourself WHY you are or should be attending to the one to the exclusion of all others that are competing for your conscious attention!
STEP FIVE: KNOW THE ENEMY!
There’s a saying that you should keep your friends close and your enemies even closer! The thinking is that what you don’t know can hurt you…and the more you know your enemy, the better you are able to protect yourself from it (or even avoid it altogether).
So, what are the enemies of effective listening? Again, and in one word, emotions! Emotions have the greatest impact on our effectiveness as listeners. Essentially, when we are listening we are vulnerable and knowing that makes it easier to understand why listening is so hard. Step Five to improving our listening is to be more “aware” and “familiar” with the enemies of listening…so it will be easier for you to (and for you to help others) avoid/overcome them.
What follows is a comprehensive list of factors MOSTLY made up of our own behaviors (motivated by our emotions/vulnerability) that prevent true and truly effective listening!
BARRIERS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS TO US (the listener):
Again, when we truly listen we are vulnerable to SOMETHING! Our fears of losing time, pride, money, status, health, comfort, or anything of “value” may or may not be obvious to us, but you can bet that the following behaviors created by our fear/vulnerability are obvious to others:
BARRIERS THAT ARE OBVIOUS TO OTHERS (the subjects of your listening):
All of these behaviors/barriers to listening come down to our vulnerability and willingness to BE vulnerable in exchange for the benefits of effective listening. The “survival instinct” (both physical and emotional) can work against our efforts to develop listening as a skill!
STEP SIX: ACKNOWLEDGE AND TREAT LISTENING AS A SKILL!!!
I get so angry when I read a position description that includes in the qualifications: Must have excellent oral and written communication skills! I do not believe I have ever seen a position description that declares a requirement that candidates be excellent listeners! Listening is BY FAR the most under-rated and under-developed communication skill of all.
Because, and even if, people are afraid of Public Speaking, they usually admit readily that they “should take a public speaking class or join Toastmasters.” Some people you talk to would admit they could benefit from taking a writing class…people who are terrible writers will SAY they are. Yet, we are all poor listeners (especially compared to our ability) but NONE OF US admit we are or that we can benefit from IMPROVING this critical skill.
So, Step Six towards improving your Listening Effectiveness is to acknowledge and TREAT listening as a skill. Use it or lose it! Pay it if you want it to pay you! No pain, no gain. You get out what you put in! If you are not getting better you are getting worse! All cliché’s apply!
So, what are you doing to improve your listening skills? Wolf Management offers customized workshops, seminars, trainings and private coaching that will improve your listening and help you improve the listening of others on your team, staff, jury, committee, or household. Click here to explore a customized Listening Program for you!
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