Is Anybody Listening, I Mean Really Listening?
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Ernest Hemingway. Often when a misunderstanding occurs, it is attributed to a lack of communication, which most of the time implies that whoever was delivering the message did not do an effective job. But what about the other side, the listener?
Listening is important. It is the communication skill most often used in human interaction. Between 45 and 55 percent of people’s communication time will be spent in listening to others (Curtis, Floyd and Winsor, p. 56). As our textbooks tell us, listening is not a skill that most people perform well.
It is difficult to define listening. We could say that it is a receiver orientation to the communication process, since communication involves both a source and a receiver, listening consists of roles receivers play in the communication process. “Listening is a process that includes attending, perceiving, interpreting, assessing, and responding” (Barker and Gaut, p. 47).
Our own listening habits have been developed since we were born. Such habits are so well established that we perform them without thinking. Unfortunately, such habits are usually undesirable and lead to poor listening.
There are a number of reasons for ineffective listening. They do not apply equally to all listeners and the degree to which they do apply will vary from different situation, speaker, and topic. But, I think, they represent common and important reasons for ineffective listening.
Rehearsing – your whole attention is designing and preparing “what to say next.” You look interested, but your mind is miles away because you are thinking about the next comment.
Judging – negatively labeling people can be lead to trouble. Everyone has biases, but it leads to ineffective listening. Let’s say you hear a speaker discuss an idea that you do not like, you might stop paying attention to that speaker, you might distort the message, in which case you would fail to understand the message because of prejudgment. This could cause your evaluation of the speaker or the message to be unfair or in error. A good rule of effective listening is that judgements should only be made after you have heard and evaluated the content of the message.
Identifying – you take everything people tell you and refer it back to your own experience. They may want to tell you about a car’s braking system, but that reminds you of your car accident. You launch into your story before they finish theirs.
Talking rather than listening – we love to hear our own voice and feel that our comments and ideas are always right. We picture ourselves as the great problem solver. We are so good that we only have to hear a few sentences and we begin searching for the right advice. The problem is that while we are coming up with suggestions, we may have missed what is most important. Have you ever been in a situation where a person argues and debates with the other people in the group, making the other people feel as if they are not being heard, because that one person is so quick to disagree? It seems as though that person’s main focus is on finding things to disagree with.
Filtering – we usually filter out messages and listen only to those topics and materials that we want to hear. We will stop paying attention to those topics that we do not want to hear, such as messages that criticize us. Then we cannot be corrected, and we cannot take suggestions to change.
Placation – we have been taught to be nice, pleasant and supportive to others, we seldom criticize others especially when others are telling us things that we want to hear. Sometimes too quick an acceptance of these messages that tell us what we like and want to hear can lead to serious problems. We may half-listen just enough to get the drift, but not really involved. We should be careful to pay attention, to comprehend, and then to analyze and evaluate what the speaker is saying.
Distraction – a distraction is anything that pulls your attention away from that which you want, or need, to pay attention to. It is difficult to avoid distraction. There may be distraction in the environment and within you – day dreaming. When we dream, we pretend to listen but we actually drift about in our interior fantasies. Instead of disciplining ourselves to truly concentrate on the input, we turn the channel to a more entertaining subject. We may have missed some important points while we are dreaming. This is a major reason for ineffective listening.
Now that I have looked at some of the blocks for effective listening, I would like to look at ways to improve our listening skills. Like any other skill, the first step to improve listening is to understand what you can do or stop doing in order to get better. The second step is to practice the new skill over and over again to make it a habit.
The first step toward more effective listening, is paying increased attention. Attention is your focus to the speaker and their material and keeping the focus. Paying close attention helps us to keep the verbal and nonverbal stimuli in our long-term memory. We are then able to compare the information with new and old materials. If this is not done, then information not stored in long term memory will be lost in a second and you will not be able to understand the content because you will not remember it. Everyone can increase attention by realizing its importance, avoiding the common tendency to day dream, fighting the tendency to give in to external and internal distractions, removing the distractions if possible or learning to listen over the distraction. We all have the ability to listen to and understand a speaker, even when there are major distractions.
The second step to improve your listening skills, is to understand nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is any communication expressed not in words but in body motion, paralanguage, proxemics, or environmental. Nonverbal communication serves a variety of functions, which repeats, contradict, substitutes, complement, accent, or regulate verbal communication. “How we say, something to others is often more important than what we say. Verbal and nonverbal behavior are complementary; neither are really complete without the other”
The third step would be to increase our ability to comprehend verbal symbols, or messages. Remember communication is a two-way process, it is the speaker’s responsibility to make themselves clear and meaningful, but it is also the listener’s same responsibility to understand what the speaker is saying. This step can be accomplished by: 1) increasing the quality and quantity of our experience, 2) learning to use context as a means of increasing our understanding, 3) keeping our bias away, 4) improving our vocabulary and 5) using feedback to confirm our interpretation.
The last step to improve listening skills is analysis and evaluation. Once we have given our attention to and understood the speaker, we are now able to analyze and evaluate the message. When we analyze, we examine the message in order to learn what the meanings are. Evaluation is the rendering of judgement to decide the value of the message. This requires us to examine the speaker’s support and reasoning, such as data, conclusion, reasoning process, examples and statistics.
In conclusion, effective listening will benefit you as well as those around you. It breaks up the barriers between people. We can understand each other more. It minimizes the losses of potential revenues, which may result from sending the customer the wrong product. It prevents miscommunication of objectives and priorities among people. It also prevents time lost because of having to recommunicate a second or third time to get things straightened out.
To listen effectively, a person must be positive, active, prevent the blocks mentioned before, pay attention to the speaker, and be able to analyze after understanding. This is not an easy skill, but it is the most fundamental and powerful skill we can have. When a person is willing to stop talking or thinking and begin to really listen to other people, all of our interactions will become easier, and our communication problems are all but eliminated.
Barker, Larry L. and Gaut, Deborah A.. Communication. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.
Curtis, D. B., Floyd, J. J., and Winsor, J. L. Business and Professional Communication. NewYork: Harper Collins, 1992.