Why we are all bad at listening and what we can do about it
By Liz Bentley
I am frequently brought into companies to help teams and divisions improve their communication skills. Everyone instinctively thinks this means improving the ability to speak and be heard. However, talking is only half of what it takes to communicate well. Listening is in many ways an even more crucial component of communication. And it’s something we all tend to do poorly for a myriad of reasons, which ends up creating or contributing to challenges in our work and relationships.
Why Are We Such Bad Listeners?
When it comes to listening, the deck is stacked against us biologically speaking. One problem is we can think much faster than someone else can speak. Research indicates that we can understand someone speaking at 400 words a minute, but most people speak 125 words per minute. This leaves a good amount of our mental capacity open to do something else when someone’s speaking to us. On top of this, our retention abilities are lacking. Studies have indicated that we only retain 50% of what’s been said immediately after and only 25% in the days that follow.
Our tech-driven world is certainly not helping matters either. We now live in a world of constant distraction that has actually been eroding away our attention span. The constant ding of emails, phone messages and texts that we have to contend with on top of overbooked schedules and grueling work demands have made for bad communication and poor listening skills.
How We Tend To Listen
Without one party always listening actively, goals can’t be set, visions can’t be created, stories can’t unfold, and people don’t feel heard. Here are 5 typical flaws people display when they listen:
Ignore – These people literally stop listening in a way that can be obvious. They look at their watch or clock, get up from their desk, or walk away from the talker mid-sentence. These people are distracted and too focused on something else to even pretend to listen to the other person.
Pretend – They politely nod their head and look at the speaker with friendly expressions as if they are hearing every word even though they are really daydreaming about their weekend plans or something else more interesting to them.
Listen to reply – They hear the first three words said and then ignore the rest because they are creating their reply. Their reply can have detailed examples and thoughts and now may be totally irrelevant because they didn’t listen to anything else that was said but they will reply anyway.
Listen through their own life – These people hear the beginning and then jump in to relate it back to their own life. For example, if someone says, “I just vacationed in Hawaii,” they’ll reply, “I vacationed there once too and learned how to surf. Now I surf on all of my vacations and just came back from Costa Rica, want to see my pictures?” They hijack stories and can miraculously relate almost any subject to themselves no matter how obscure or remote.
Judge while listening – They judge what the other person is saying as he/she is saying it. They are thinking, “that’s not true, those facts aren’t right, it can’t happen, she is always wrong about these things, he exaggerates everything.” They may not be saying these things out loud but they are thinking them and therefore not listening.
Some people are obviously bad at listening because they are ignoring or talking over people. As John Wayne says, these individuals are “short on ears and long on mouth.” But others are coy in their tuning out. They stay silent and let the person speak which can give the illusion that they are listening even though they are not. My observations are that we all have the potential to exhibit the above characteristics at times, and we all need help in the listening department whether we speak or not!
The Not-So-Obvious Pitfalls: What We Tend To Avoid
We all have topics and people we like to listen to and ones we don’t. Usually we don’t listen to the topics that push us out of our comfort zone. In the case of people, we prejudge those we think are not worth listening to. There are many reasons we make these exclusions. Here are some personality profiles we tend to tune out or avoid engaging with:
The Exaggerator – This person loves to exaggerate or just gets the facts wrong. His or her inaccuracies make you feel that whatever is being said should be discounted.
The Detail Doctor – This person loves the details and telling them to you at length. You know that every time this person comes to you, he/she will be long-winded with what seems like unnecessary and boring details.
The Sharp Tongue – Everything this person says feels like a punch in the stomach. It’s easier to tune the person out than take the hits.
The Hedger – This person speaks with so many caveats “maybe, sometimes, only if you want, possibly” that you feel he/she doesn’t have an opinion, so why listen.
The Story Hijacker – This person interrupts you and steals your story by derailing the conversation to focus on his or her own experiences and thoughts. It can become a bit of a game. You may only be listening for the opportunity to bring the topic back to yours.
The Gapster – This person doesn’t keep the conversation going, leaving gaps which make you feel pressure to fill the void by a constant stream of talking.
The Furrowed Brow – His or her serious facial expressions make you uncomfortable and quick to disengage from the conversation.
The Zombie – This is the emotionless listener who only listens for facts, not for the emotional connection. You don’t feel connected, so you come away feeling unfulfilled.
The Rusher – You feel like the stopwatch starts the second you start talking and you only have a limited time to speak before this person ends the conversation or tunes you out.
Why We Need To Listen
The need to feel understood is the most basic of human needs. All people want to feel understood in their lives and in their work. Clients want to feel that their business partners understand their needs, subordinates want to feel that their boss gets them, and bosses want to be heard so that projects are executed. Everyone has a great need to feel connected, and to create that feeling is arguably one of the most important skills you can have in life.
When people are not listening, chaos ensues. Aside from the fact that obvious things can go off course such as goals, projects, tasks, etc., disruptive undercurrents of discontent are also created that can be even more harmful. People who feel unheard become resentful and angry.
For example, a few yeas ago I met a wealth management director at a party who seemed to have a great philosophy. He told me his vision at the party and again when we went to his office for our first meeting. On the second visit, I felt it was time for us to talk and give our own vision to see how it could match with his thinking. But again, he wanted to be center stage and only wanted to do the talking. He was an interrupter and story hijacker. He never wanted to stop, listen and connect to us, so on the third round of hearing his speech, I suddenly felt angry and disheartened by this experience. I was amazed at how much it upset me and left me feeling frustrated.
This happens all the time at work: salespeople who don’t know when to stop talking, bosses who don’t weigh in with their subordinates, colleagues who won’t listen to the whole problem but make snap judgments on how to fix issues, etc. These problems aren’t just tactical mistakes; they are emotional ones that can cause much bigger damage to relationships.
Here’s What We All Can Do
As Steven Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Imagine that! I know it seems like a daunting task because it means you are going to have to give up time to listen or you’re going to have to speak and be responsive to the person talking to you. Here’s how to start:
- Listen with your whole body. Listen with your eyes, ears, and heart.
- Listen for meaning. Don’t just hear the words. People’s words don’t always reflect their meaning. Listen for the meaning of what they are saying.
- Rephrase the content and check in with the speaker to ensure that you got it right.
- Ask questions to clarify. This will help you dig deeper and give them the feedback they are seeking.
- Stop judging the messenger.
- Identify the topics and subject matters you don’t like to listen to so that you can sharpen your skills in this setting.
As Malcolm Forbes said, “the art of conversation lies in listening.” Becoming a great communicator is something we have to work on every day. It is not a box on our “to do” list that we will check off as done. It is a constant evolution of working and learning how to relate with the different people in our lives. Many of those great connections will come from listening to people’s needs and truly understanding what they are trying to say. Slow down and listen up – your life will be more productive and fulfilling if you do.