Listen Up

listen up

We wanted to get some real data about listening. We also wanted to get beyond old statements about ‘active-listening’, and we wanted to know what impact listening had on how people felt?

So we asked about 100 working people some questions.

They told us that they were all at least averagely skilled listeners. Many told us they were good listeners. But they all agreed that many people were poor listeners. Our survey, which we think included some poor listeners, didn’t find any. Perhaps this was a bad question? So we tried some others.

Two of our questions got closer to the bone

  • How easy do you find it to listen with patience at the pace and rhythm of the speaker?
  • How easy do you find it to maintain a state of attentiveness even when there are significant distractions within you?

Even where people believed that they were good listeners, only 30% of our sample scored at an average or above level on these two questions. So why is this?

One strong possibility is that we talk at about 250 words a minute but we process words at three times that rate. Our brains work faster than our tongues and this has two consequences.

Firstly, what we’re thinking about competes with what we’re listening to and because of it’s superior speed, thinking usually wins.

Secondly, we have the capacity to anticipate the words of others (even if we can’t actually mind-read) and so we jump to conclusions and even interrupt people. This has a secondary consequence – we lose friends!

Realistically, listening well, ‘with patience at the pace and rhythm of the speaker’, is hard work. It’s hard because we have to turn off the chatter in our heads and give time and attention to others. This is not ‘active listening’, it’s de-active thinking. So why put in the effort?

From an organizational perspective, when people are listened to they report higher levels of engagement. But was does being listened to do to them emotionally and how might this affect their levels of energy and their discretionary effort?

We asked our 100 souls and got some fascinating answers.

‘ When I’m heard I feel…’ validated, understood, respected, good, able to be challenged, I learn about other people, appreciated, valued, encouraged, motivated, aspirational, focused, relief, supported, grateful, able to make a difference and high.

That’s a pretty good result for a few minutes taken out of ‘talking time’ and a great result if you have a responsibility for teams of people. The mere act of listening will increase a persons sense of well-being even if the listening itself has been unskillfully done. It’s not re-calling precisely what someone has said, it’s endeavoring to remember, that has the impact.
So next time you’re in conversation and you want to increase your engagement score, turn off the mental chatter, listen to what someone is saying, ask a few pertinent questions related to what you’ve heard and watch the lights go on!

Kevin Eyre is also director of Talk is Action Limited.

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