My husband and I got in a big argument the other night that went on for hours. He was all upset, saying I never listen to him. At least that’s what I think he said.
This old joke serves as a good example of how people in general are not good listeners. Just because we’re not talking when someone else is doesn’t mean we’re doing anything more than watching their lips move. Studies have shown that, in general, people really listen to others only about 45 percent of the time. On top of that, we only remember 20 percent of what we hear. And here’s another fact to keep in mind: 85 percent of what we know we learned by listening. Which means when we don’t listen, we’re not learning.
Like most things we do, effective listening requires a conscious effort and some acquired skills. Everyone with the gift of hearing has no choice but to hear sounds and voices in the everyday world. But to really listen—to receive, interpret, and retain an accurate verbal message—requires more. It’s not like we have to learn a new computer program or spend thousands of dollars updating our equipment. We just have to know about and practice all three listening techniques. We have to listen with our head, listen with our heart, and listen to confirm shared meaning.
Listening with our head involves working to understand the information. If we don’t grasp terms and facts, what we hear is just noise. For that noise to be useful, we have to assimilate information and make sense out of what is being said. Harken back to your days in school. As you sat through lectures, your goal was to gather important facts and key terms, as well as the big picture of the lesson being taught. Why did you do this? So you could pass the test, apply the information, and make yourself an all-around smarter person. If you’ve ever served jury duty, chances are you were listening with your head—absorbing every detail of the case, the law, and using your judgment of the facts to make a very important decision. As good listeners we need to do more than just hear, we need to work to understand the terms, facts, and concepts and ask questions as needed to make sure we do.
Listening with our heart involves listening to get meaning beyond the spoken word. We need to be attuned to more than the obvious and literal messages and connect with the speakers’ attitudes. How they are feeling may be as relevant as what they are saying. When we listen with the heart, we observe facial expressions, physical posture, and gestures. We make eye contact. We probe and ask, "Why did you say that?" Even the pace of speech and vocal tone are indicators of how the speaker feels about the message.
It should come as no surprise that men and women listen differently. Research shows men typically listen more with the left side of their brains, making it easier for them to concentrate and comprehend—and more difficult for them to digest the emotional undertones and hidden messages. Women, on the other hand, listen with both hemispheres of their brains and are generally more able to absorb the speaker’s unspoken words and feelings. Any one of us, however, can listen with the heart if we work to hear not just what the speaker says about the subject, but how they feel about it, too.
Listening to confirm shared meaning is where hidden misunderstanding is routed out and mutual respect begins. It involves summarizing back to the speaker what we have just heard. Everyone wants to be listened to, and the world’s most successful people and companies know it. When you think about it, there’s no easier or more accurate way to know your customers or employees than by getting out on the front lines and talking—or listening—to people. Even if you make a modest improvement in the time devoted to listening and to listening skills, you might be surprised at what you learn. IBI