The Lost Art of Listening, Part 1

When Charles Wang and his family came to America in 1949, they had two suitcases. Wang, now worth well over $100 million in Computer Associates International Stock, says that his company grew because they listened to their clients. Wang says that while most computer companies sell people what they need, his company asked them what they wanted and then carefully listened to their responses. Maybe Yogi Berra knew what he was talking about when he said, “If you listen long enough, you will hear something.”

Most people spend about 80 percent of their workday communicating — one-half is spent listening, the other half is spent reading, writing and speaking. But listening is rarely viewed as a priority, because people don’t feel that they will be rewarded for keeping quiet. Being quiet is viewed as being passive, so people struggle for the spotlight by talking more or louder than others.

According to Morey Stettner in the book The Art of Winning Conversation, listening is the key to better communication. Supervisors can enhance their overall management skills by focusing on listening better to their staff, members, owners and vendors. Many people are poor listeners because they’ve never been taught how to listen and because they can get away with it. So few of us listen well that our expectations of others drop. We may not listen closely when we are immersed in thought or activity. Instead of stopping to focus on the person speaking to us, we continue to try to do both, generally at the speaker’s expense. This is quite common in fitness centers, where constant noise and distractions compete for our attention.

We also tune out others when we don’t like what they’re saying, when we’re not interested in their subject or when we care so much about the topic that we’re busy thinking about what we’re going to say when we should be listening.

Good managers must be effective communicators, which requires strong listening skills. A manager who stays quiet and lets his/her staff talk will learn more about their concerns and be better equipped to help them than if he/she simply told them what to do. Stettner suggests that instead of thinking, “When I talk, people listen,” think, “When I listen, people talk.” This can be a difficult switch for managers who are used to calling the shots. They may fear they will lose control if they stop talking, when, in fact, they will gain more control through additional knowledge.

Most of us talk at a pace of 150 to 200 words per minute. But our ears and brain can process words at a rate about four times faster, leaving us plenty of time to think of our responses, let our minds wander or ignore the speaker. According to Stettner, people typically devote only 20 percent of their attention to the here and now, leaving 80 percent of their mind to wander.

Listening in the here and now can not only help you better understand the speaker, but also can shorten conversations and save time by minimizing misunderstanding and the need for repetition and clarification.

To become a better listener, Stettner suggests the “teach me, teach me” technique. Whenever listening, mentally repeat, “teach me, teach me” — a reminder that the main point of listening is to learn something. Entering dialogues expecting to learn eases listening automatically. What hinders us is our tendency to judge the speaker rather than pay attention to what is said. The challenge is to extract the main points without being distracted by personal opinions or commentary.

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