photo of tin can to represent communication

The Art of Listening

Ken Ingram 14th March 2021

Are you listening to me?  Listening is the ability to receive and interpret messages in a communication process.  Without being able to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood and communication breaks down.  Various studies demonstrate that many of us spend 70% to 80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. During that time we spend 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening (Adler, R. et al. 2001).    Listening is a key skill and fundamental to the success of so many things in leadership and management.  This is even more the case during the pandemic when we are often at such a distance from colleagues and at the mercy of bandwidth and Zoom to communication.

However, my experience is that many people find it difficult to listen well and I think there are many reasons for this:

Beliefs and assumptions

It is easy to go into a conversation with a whole heap of beliefs and assumptions that affect the way we listen. For example, if I’m making an assumption that when my boss calls me she is likely to be criticising me in some way, then the focus of my attention is likely to be on that criticism.

The boxing match

I notice a lot of people seem to be so keen to make their own point that they forget to really listen to what is being said. Sometimes this seems like a boxing match where the objective is more about scoring points than clarity.

 Too much is going on

The other thing that gets in the way of my listening is that often I have so much going on and so many distractions that finding time to focus and simply listen is difficult

That it hurts

Sometimes it’s difficult for people to listen if what is being said is genuinely uncomfortable. For example, if there is some implied criticism that pushes a button in me, I can react to that emotion rather than try to understand the feedback I am on receiving.

So how do we listen well?

Listening is about philosophy more than technique. It is easy to talk about active listening skills unless we can turn off some other things that are getting in the way it will always be an uphill struggle.

Here are some of the things that I find useful that may help you:

  • Summarise and paraphrase

    I hesitate to include this one because I’ve seen too many listening programmes where paraphrasing is pushed to such an extent that you can end up simply repeating things parrot fashion over and over again. What I mean by paraphrasing and summarising is simply making sure that you have fully understood what is being said. This technique also helps to ensure that I have enough headspace to keep listening. I find that I have a surprisingly small memory capacity and when my short term memory has run out, my listening skills go haywire. Paraphrasing just helps me get some of the things being said from my short to long-term memory so I can concentrate better.
  •  Watch the body language

    I also look for body language that is in or out of kilter with what they say. Sometimes I think this goes awry I think people need to be encouraged to be truthful to describe their thoughts and emotions. Checking out with them about what they really mean can be very useful in this context.
  • Focus on understanding and clarity

    One of the things that I find most difficult when listening is to try to solve an issue rather than simply gain understanding and clarity of the issue. The best technique I can offer to overcome this is simply to bring this danger to my awareness and whenever I feel that I am beginning to go astray, to bring my focus back to listening.
  • Don’t make it passive

    Listening is not a passive activity.  Asking questions that help you and the person you are listening to understand the situation can be important.  Aim for these to be as open as possible (what, where, why, etc) as this will expand understating.

However, remember that no technique is more important than simply making listening about the other person and not about you and knowing that the focus is understanding rather than simply finding solutions.  I believe that if we could live to this mantra more and organisational life could be become a whole lot better and easier.