Are you really listening?

When was the last time someone really listened to you? I mean REALLY listened to you?  

So much so that when you parted ways you thought something along the lines of – “finally, someone who really gets me”; “Wow, they were genuinely interested to hear what I had to say”; “They seemed to really get what I’m worried about, talking about…..”; “It feels great to have someone take me seriously on this…”. 

So poor in fact, is the state of listening skill with most people around the world, that if you choose to really amp up your listening skills, it will give you a unique competitive advantage…which, in an age where people have access to more information than ever, can be the differentiator, the make or break of success in any situation, whether it’s building engagement with your direct reports, or in a competitive situation.  

The bottom line? If you want to influence someone to do anything, you have to ‘earn the right’ – which doesn’t come from not listening, assuming, talking at, or presenting. 

Yet the fact is that most of the time we're not actually listening, but simply waiting (or not waiting!) for our turn to speak. 

A number of University of Missouri studies point out that many of us spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening. The studies also confirmed that most of us are pretty poor and inefficient listeners. 

I regularly get asked to work with people, from new recruits to senior executives, coaches, managers and team leaders, who, from the feedback they receive, seem to falter when it comes to really listening to their people.  

Whilst this often seems to come from a ‘good place’ – a desire to demonstrate credibility, knowledge, add value or to get things done quickly – there is a very big difference between being interested, (what other people, your direct reports or colleagues want us to be in relation to their challenges and needs), and being interesting (the ‘all-singing’ all-dancing’ presentation talk-fest!). 

As Hugh Mackay put it in his recent book, What Makes Us Tick, one common desire that we all have from time to time, is the desire to be taken seriously. And the way we demonstrate that we’re taking someone seriously?  

By really listening to them. 

So let’s look at a couple of reasons why we all struggle from time to time with focusing on another person, with really listening to them and letting them know that we are taking them seriously. 

I think I’m pretty safe in saying that we’ve all practiced what’s commonly called selective deafness now and then. You know what I mean…you’re absorbed in a book, watching your favourite show or football team on TV and there’s some background noise along the lines of “mum, can you take me to soccer tonight?”; “Honey, can you take the dog for a walk this afternoon?” You hear and respond to the noise but you’re not actually listening. 

Why is this? How can we hear and respond but not really listen? 

What many people aren’t aware of is that there are a couple of significant physical challenges we all have that can regularly get in the way of really listening.  

The fact is that human beings have somewhere over 200,000,000 receptors for seeing – we don’t have to think about seeing, we open our eyes and there it is. Our ears on the other hand have only about 10,000,000 receptors, meaning we have to work about 20 times harder to listen than we do to see. 

And just to add to the physical challenges around listening, our brains work about 5 to 7 times faster than most people speak. Most of us speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute. However, we actually have the mental capacity to understand someone speaking at 400 words per minute (Good Grief!). 

This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that when we seem to be listening to the average speaker, we're using only 25 percent of our mental capacity. We still have 75 percent to do something else with. So, our minds wander… and that’s a lot of ‘air time’ up there so we fill it with – you guessed it – thoughts about what we’re going to say next, what question to ask next, panicking about what they’re going to ask us next or simply idle internal chat totally unrelated to the conversation. (Ever had that awful feeling of coming up short, having no idea of where the conversation’s at, when the other person stops talking?) 

If you’re going to REALLY listen to someone then, you fundamentally have to make a conscious choice to ‘switch on’ your listening, keep it switched on and to focus on the other person. 

In essence, whilst most people are born with the ability to hear, listening is in fact a learned skill. 

Yet how many people were taught to listen? I was certainly told to be quiet quite a lot, but I don’t recall ever being taught to listen. Best estimates in school curricula around the world is that, if you’re lucky, about 9% of teaching time is spent on this essential life skill. 

In essence, we spend the least amount of time learning what we need to spend the most amount of time doing – listening – if we want to be successful in any area of life.  

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey noted that when we feel understood, taken seriously, we feel affirmed and validated.  He coined the expression: ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood’, which serves as a constant reminder of the need to listen to another person, to ‘earn the right’, before you can expect them to listen to or be influenced by you. 

In short, if you want to build trust, employee engagement, develop rapport, demonstrate real empathy and deep understanding – all powerful relationship-builders – then you’d better get busy listening. 

Penny Nesbitt