Are You Really Listening?

October 16, 2013


Hearing vs. Listening

Eons ago, a Culinary Institute of America instructor told me, “God gave you one mouth and two ears, making it possible for you to listen twice as much as you speak.” It’s a wonderful goal to which every new professional should aspire.

Unfortunately, too many of us hear more than we listen. Our brains constantly track a background cacophony of sound, a process that’s critical to our survival.

What distinguishes listening from hearing is the amount of brainpower we afford to that sound. Most of the on-going daily noise we encounter becomes a mere distraction. However, when we hear a sudden and unexpected clap of thunder, the reptilian portion of our brain takes over, creating an immediate fight or flight response. And when we choose to really listen to a boss or colleague, we actively engage our brain’s cortex, encouraging complex, critical, and focused thinking.

Keep this principle in mind: hearing is relatively simple; listening requires real mental effort.

(For more on the science of hearing and listening, click here to read Seth Horowitz’s “The Science and Art of Listening, The New York Times, November 9, 2012.)

The Art of Active Listening

New professionals who wish to move beyond hearing to active listening must be prepared to engage their entire brain. Throughout a conversation or meeting, pay careful attention to all the words that are spoken. This sounds simple enough. Yet, I suspect each of us has experienced a simple misunderstanding that yielded significant consequences, as in, “When you said you wanted the draft by Tuesday, I thought you meant next Tuesday, not this Tuesday.”

At the same time, make note of other cues, including, eye contact, body language, and various gestures. All of these may reveal unspoken messages.

Then focus on retaining some part of the message. To the extent you “use” information as soon as you hear it, you significantly increase the likelihood of retention.

Degrees of Active Listing

Ranked in order of intensity, from least to most, the following three activities will help you “use” the information that you hear:

Repeat key messages – Face the speaker, open your posture, lean toward the speaker, and make relaxed eye contact. After hearing the speaker’s key message, repeat the message using the speaker’s exact words.

Paraphrase – Hear the key message and then test your understanding of what has been said. By restating the message using similar language, you communicate that you have begun to understand the message, both what has been said as well as underlying emotions.

Reflect – The most intense form of active listening requires you to interpret key messages delivered using your own language. This includes organizing and integrating key aspects of the conversation, paying attention to overall themes and recognizing emotional context.

Barriers to Active Listening

Despite our best intents, active listening may be impeded by a variety of factors. These include: distractions; “trigger words” (words that immediately evoke a strong response); vocabulary; and limited attention span.

To overcome these barriers, work to put your emotions aside and ask questions to clarify understanding. As soon as you begin to judge or argue with key messages, you are no longer engaged in active listening. Rather, you are holding onto beliefs and perceptions that inhibit active listening.

On a day-to-day basis you have little control over what you hear. Listening, on the other hand, requires your active participation. Achieve comprehension by focusing your attention on verbal and nonverbal cues.

What You Need to Know?

Successful professionals focus on active listening seeking to achieve understanding through repeating, rephrasing and reflecting on key messages.



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