By Cheryl Crumb

Conversation as an art is on the decline.


Text blasts aren't helping, and since most schools don't teach us how to listen or ask questions, we're devolving into superficial bursts of incomplete thoughts. Unfortunately, they don't result in productive action.


When I'm conducting communication training, I frequently ask: "What's the typical Ear-Q?" (Ear-Q is my way of stating listening effectiveness.) It's pretty best, 25%. In the world of school and grades, that equates to a spectacular failure. Another way of looking at it, 75% of your brilliant nuggets have plummeted into the dark abyss because no one heard them. No listening, no action!


Bad habits abound.


Pick the ones that ring true for you: Do you interrupt, finish the speaker's sentence, tune out because you're bored, utter "yes, but....", not look at the speaker, or top the claim with, "that's nothing...I....."? The word "listening" is derived from the Olde English words Hlysnan (hear) and Hlosnian (suspenseful waiting). To listen fully we must wait in suspense to hear what the other person has to say. Natural temperament and bad habits have curbed suspenseful listening.


Like most things worth doing well, improvement involves internal self-talk and skill application.


There has to be a reason why so many intelligent, educated people don't listen well. Let's conjugate listening to understand its separate elements. First, it begins with Hearing. We passively process thousands of sounds daily. We may register a sound, yet not be listening. There are lots of barriers to hearing, external and internal. External barriers include noise, visual distractions, and vocal accents. Internal barriers, however, are a greater obstacle...negative thoughts about the speaker or subject, mind-wandering, emoting, fantasies, and pretending.


Research indicates we're distracted or preoccupied 75% of the time.


The problem that occurs with not hearing is most of the time we don't know what we haven't heard. We're blind to our deafness! We need to be present to the person who is speaking, to concentrate and focus on what they are saying and to not allow ourselves to engage in self talk of "this is boring" or "this is wrong". It takes effort, but it's doable and essential. (I heard someone say that this concentrated discipline actually burns calories, so there might be a double benefit!)

Listening Process


That takes us to the second phase of listening.....Interpreting. While Hearing is passive, Interpreting is automatic. We can't not interpret. We're "meaning making machines." We make everything mean something, and this occurs through the filter of our life and cultural experiences. I often start a listening exercise by asking people to turn to page X in their workbook. Automatically, 70% of the class picks up their pen. When I ask why they picked up their pen when I didn't say anything about pens, their response, "paper means a pen will be used". That's an example of unconscious interpreting and automatic action. The result of this interpreting? We make assumptions, and we treat them subconsciously as truth and don't question them.


A story will help illustrate. As a northerner, I was visiting a restaurant in the southern US called The Angus Chop House. When I asked the waiter what was good, he said....or so I thought...."The Successful A". Made immediate sense to me...."A" for Angus", "Successful" for their most popular cut. I tried to find this offering on the menu and when I wasn't able, I recalled the waiter. "Where is the Successful A?", I asked. He said, "right here" and pointed to "6-oz. filet"! A combination of accent, northern ears, and assumptions, caused me....A Communications fall prey to the Listening Trap. No one is immune!


If that's all we do......quietly hear (or not) and unconsciously automatically assume, we can safely bet our house mortgage that we'll have a communication breakdown! Since what often happens is this "passive partial listening", only one-quarter of the real message gets through.


We can't not make assumptions, so don't set that as your goal.


Instead, by knowing that we will always assume, and most often, not even be aware that we've given birth to a set of assumptions, we need to introduce questioning into our conversational repertoire. That's the third step. Questions challenge or clarify our assumptions and add definition to ambiguity. One problem, however, is that many people are reluctant to ask questions.....for fear of looking stupid. The bigger the group, the more people you'll look stupid to, so even less questions are asked. From their side, speakers need to make it easy for listeners to ask questions. This could include praising the questioner for their insight or suggesting that questions will help them better articulate their thoughts. My rule of thumb: even when you think something is so obvious, there's always something that can be learned through questions. That new insight might reveal the gold nugget. So, being a good listener takes persistence and courage.


It's no good stopping there, because the speaker will answer your question, which you'll hear correctly or not, and out of which you'll make meaning. So, we're back in the spiral. All processes need a check phase and ours is called Restating. That's the fourth and final phase. The obvious is to restate the content of what the speaker said, but that's only the beginning. Also restate what the speaker didn't other words, the "unsaid" assumptions you made. I often use the example of a teenager saying, "Do I have to?". Restating the content results in, "he asked whether he had to". Restating the "unsaid" results in, "he doesn't want to". Finally, generous listening involves a restatement of feelings, expressed or implied. With our previous example,"You sound reluctant to take action and resigned about the entire project." That complete restating will likely spark a more powerful, revealing conversation.


The good news is that listening is a muscle that can be strengthened.


There's no shortage of people to practice with. By being conscious about all four phases of listening, we can shift from being a passive Teflon Listener to a catalyst that evokes a fascinating, comprehensive conversation.


Next time you complain that someone didn't tell you something, consider that what is not said is caused by the listener!

One Response to “Hello…..Is anyone listening?”

  • Good article Cheryl, although I must say I was distracted by many things while reading it:)
    I always believed that restating is such an excellent “listening” skill, in that it helps both the speaker and the listener better understand what is (or is not) being communicate.

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