Have you ever been in a meeting, or in a conversation with someone else, and you didn’t hear what they said? Or you later forgot what they told you because you weren’t really listening? Or you don’t even remember them telling you something in the first place?
If you’ve experienced any or all of these uncomfortable scenarios, you’re not alone. In fact, we often feel like we’re better listeners than we really are when, in reality, studies have found that we listen effectively about 25% of the time. And when you take into account that we hear about 20,000-30,000 words every day, that’s a lot of data to be missing out on through ineffective listening.
Based on the stats shared above, there’s listening, and then there’s “effective” listening. What’s the difference? Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, offers a powerful definition on effective listening:
"Listening is an art. When people are speaking, they require our undivided attention. We focus on them; we listen very carefully. We listen to the spoken words and the unspoken messages. This means looking directly at the person, eyes connected; we forget we have a watch, just focusing for that moment on that person. It's called respect, it's called appreciation—and it's called leadership."
Effective listening requires 100% engagement on our part.
The Benefits of Effective Listening
Besides gleaning essential and meaningful information, what are some other benefits of effective listening? Here are a few to keep in mind:
- Builds trust. It shows that you care about the other person and what they’re saying and that you’re consciously making time for them. When you show you’re willing to listen, others will feel confident sharing their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas with you because you’ve shown that you value what they’re saying.
- Builds and nurtures relationships. Try not listening in any relationship—business, personal, and so on—and you’ll see pretty quickly how a lack of listening can damage any relationship. People want to be not only seen, but heard.
- Helps you learn more from others and broaden your perspectives. Marshall Goldsmith, touted as America’s preeminent executive coach, believes that “80% of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen.” A wealth of knowledge can be discovered in those around you if you’ll only take the time to really listen to them.
- Strengthens communication. An integral part of communicating is not talking, but listening. And when you truly listen to someone, you can decrease conflict and misunderstanding and increase empathy, understanding, and trust.
- Increases productivity. When team members listen to each other, they’re better able to understand and fulfill their roles and responsibilities, ask appropriate questions, and decrease any misunderstandings that can affect productivity and team morale. Simply listening effectively can actually increase revenues too.
Roadblocks to Effective Listening
Since effective listening is so important, why can it be such a difficult thing to accomplish?
Distractions can be a roadblock to effective listening. Take the opportunity to watch the people around you and see how many are “listening” while being on their phones at the same time. Or we try to listen while so much is going on around us, making it difficult to really listen. We live in a distraction-filled world 24/7/365, and these distractions—many of which we can’t prevent—can negatively affect our ability to listen effectively.
Attempting to multitask while we’re also trying to listen can be another roadblock to effective listening, which can be problematic since we truly can’t multitask. In fact, studies have found that only 2.4% of us can actually multitask effectively. Our brains just aren’t wired to be able to do more than one thing at a time successfully. So, trying to listen on a call while also trying to check things of that to-do list probably won’t work too well...for the call and for the to-do list.
Another roadblock to effective listening can be ourselves as we can often unknowingly insert our experiences, knowledge, values, perspectives, etc., into what we’re hearing, causing us to sometimes misinterpret what someone else is saying.
A last, but crucial roadblock is that we are often thinking about how we’re going to reply to what someone is saying while they’re saying it. Remember that multitasking statistic? Trying to formulate a reply while listening is multitasking, and it also shows disrespect for others in the conversation.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey
How to Become an Effective Listener
Since effective listening involves more than just hearing with your ears, there are some things you can do to increase your ability to really listen to those around you—both at work and in your personal life.
Remove as many distractions as possible. Put your phone away, or at least put it on silent. If necessary, find a quiet place to talk, and when it’s impossible to remove all distractions, make it a point to focus more intently on the conversation.
Practice the 80/20 rule when listening. Pareto first made this rule popular, which states that 80% of any outcomes or outputs come from 20% of any inputs or causes. So, when it comes to listening, aim to listen 80% of the time and talk only 20% of the time. If this is difficult to do at first, follow the advice of Epictetus:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Don’t make assumptions about what someone is saying. Let’s be honest: We’re not effective speakers 100% of the time, and what we want to say might not come out like it should or how we mean it to be spoken once the words leave our mouths. So give others the benefit of the doubt, and if you’re ever unclear about what someone is saying, ask questions and for clarifications so you can better understand the meanings behind the words.
Treat listening as an action like walking, or writing, or working, or anything else you do during the day. “Listening is not silence. Listening is not passive. Listening is the most active, dynamic, intense and rewarding form of communication that exists: it opens the whole world to you.” ~ Greg McKeown, NY Times bestselling author of Essentialism and Effortless.
Curb the natural inclination to want to reply too quickly. In other words, think before you speak. Take a breath or two, or wait a second or two before replying. Give your brain enough time to comprehend what was said so you can reply wisely and respectfully and without possibly clouding the conversation with your own perspectives.
Repeat back some of the exact words and phrases you heard when necessary, then ask for any needed clarifications to solidify your understanding of what has been said. Studies have shown that this is more effective than attempting to rephrase what you’ve heard, which can potentially change the meaning of what’s been said based on your own perspectives, etc.
Paraphrase carefully when needed. It’s sometimes difficult to understand what someone is saying, so in these instances, preface a paraphrase with something like, “I’m going to put what you’ve said in my own words to help me better understand.” This shows respect for what’s been said and a desire to truly understand the other person.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Studies have shown that 90% of communication is non-verbal, so as an effective listener, be sure to maintain eye contact, lean in a bit, watch your facial expressions, nod appropriately, avoid crossing your arms, and so on. Likewise, watch for any nonverbal cues from others in the conversation, as these cues can “speak” volumes.
Effective listening is an essential skill that can be learned and continually nurtured, and when we listen effectively, we can enjoy strong relationships, build trust and empathy, continue to learn and grown personally and professionally, and be a valuable member of our families, friends, communities, and in our workplaces.
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