Let’s Really Listen

Let's Really Listen!

Recently I ordered lunch for my wife and me at a deli. I said, “I want two turkey sandwiches on wheat, one with cheese and one without.”  The preparer’s response was, “You want cheese on both?”

I like coffee without cream or sugar so I order a cup of coffee with these words:  “I want coffee–black,” and within seconds I will often hear: “Do you want cream and sugar with that?”

Listening seems to be a lost skill and yet is a critical part of communication. We spend 45% of our communication time each day in listening. And yet we don’t do it very well. Our listening efficiency may be as low as 25%. Hard to imagine, but that means sometimes we only catch one-fourth of what is being said to us!

If we don’t listen well, people may conclude we don’t care and or the information is not relevant.

Listening and credibility are closely related. We choose physicians and repair shops where we think the people serving us really listen to our problems and complaints. We don’t go back to places if we perceive their employees do not listen to us. Listening well requires an active mind and increased energy. Here are some suggestions to really listen in your next conversation.

Ask open-ended questions. Questions that command yes, no, or one-word answers produce responses that are less revealing to the listener. On the other hand, questions such as “What other factors are involved?” and “What else might influence the way we handle this problem?” encourage the talker to give details and force you to pick up the conversation where the talker left off, listening as a result.

Paraphrase. Paraphrasing verifies the accuracy of your listening and makes sure the other person’s perspective is clear to you. If you can paraphrase accurately, you’ve been concentrating. When you push yourself to paraphrase occasionally, you become more actively involved with the talker. This opportunity typically occurs when you’re receiving instructions or learning a new skill. Before leaving a conversation, say, “Let me make sure I understand you correctly. What I’ve been hearing is that….”

Listen first; advise second. When someone comes to you with a problem or is seeking information to deal with a situation, your first impulse may be to offer advice or a solution. But sometimes all that person wants is someone to listen and understand. By listening first, you’ll understand the person’s problem better. If he or she doesn’t solve the problem by talking about it, you will at least have better information with which to offer advice.

Commit completely. Don’t let anything distract you while you are listening. If you are in your office, forward your phone calls to voice mail. Sit so you cannot see the screen of your computer and be tempted to check it out as you are listening. If you tend to watch people in the hallway, turn your back to the door or close it. These actions are all indicators to the talker that you are focusing on what he or she is saying.

All four of these suggestions will motivate you to spend more time listening than speaking, which will insure your connection to the person talking. As Ralph Nichols, one of the earliest researchers in the area of listening, said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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