How to Suck Less at Listening

Is it really your fault if you don’t listen?

Deceptively hard.

You have something important to say.  Or maybe you just need a listening ear.  Who do you turn to?  Who do you trust to listen, to care, to honor and respect the space you need to be heard?

Because listening actively and opening is intentional.  It has to be.  And what does that person do that makes you feel valued and heard?

Most times it’s the little things, the eye contact, the full attention, the thoughtful follow up questions, the summarizing of your thoughts and feelings, the lack of judgment that allows you to be transparent, vulnerable.

And all of these very small deliberate acts create a profound effect on our relationship.  So why is it so hard to create this space with everyone we encounter—work or home?  Why is listening in this way—the way we know how to do, such a challenge.

We know it will improve our connections and relationships, yet we don’t always make the right choices.  Even the small ones.

Let’s review some really amazing data on talking and listening.

  1. People speak at a rate of 125-150 words per minute.
  2. People can listen at a rate of 300-400 words per minute.
  3. 60% of misunderstandings can be traced to poor listening and only 1% to written communications.

What are the implications of statistics 1 and 2?  OMG we have so much extra capacity for developing our grocery list, thinking of the rationale not to exercise, wondering how we can get out of our next meeting, or the best use of time, waiting to solve the other person’s problem.  Because we are clearly in the best position to do so.  #obviously

At the same time, I do want to differentiate though between hearing and listening. Hearing is for the most part effortless, it can be both accidental and involuntary.  Listening however is intentional.  It is a voluntary act.  We need to focus to listen.  Why?

Because our brain works against us in terms of listening, and so do our filters.  We have the internal filters, like the capacity thing…..or other factors like:

  • Judging
  • Biases
  • Not understanding the language, the chosen words
  • Not caring
  • We don’t actually like the other person
  • We’re tired, hungry, stressed, cold, hot, overwhelmed

Each of these affect our ability to listen.  And to listen not just to the sound, which is easy, but to the meaning, the sub-text, the things that someone is saying with their tone, their body language, and what they might be avoiding saying….

And the impact of attentional filters, those things that distract us from outside of ourselves are huge.  And while they mostly work outside of our awareness, some of them directly affect our awareness.  Oh you know the number one our HAND HELD MOBILE DEVICES.  Yes, I am yelling.  Because according to a curated list of data from Kommando Tech:

  • More than 5 billion people own mobile phones, and over half of those are smartphones.
  • Americans spend around 5.4 hours a day using phones.
  • People check their phones 58 times a day on average with more than half of those occurring during working hours.
  • 70% of mobile sessions are shorter than 2 minutes.

The fact that we have our mobile devices so close by, plays a part in our attention.  And our mind has a limited capacity for attention and willpower.

Research proves that our brain has the ability to process one person talking to us effectively, and even this is hard for our brains.  We have to be mindful of the person and the information we’re taking in again, beyond the words.

What to do?

In coaching we call being mindful, present and ready to listen—“holding the space.”  And hey, I love this concept.  I am both literally and figuratively holding a space in which you can communicate to me—and I will listen actively, opening, lovingly and supportively.  Holding the space means I give you the ultimate respect, my undivided attention.

How can you hold the space?  Eliminate distractions:  obvious but extremely challenging because they are inside of us, outside of us and frequently outside of our consciousness

  • Pay attention to sub-text, tone and body language account for a huge portion of the meaning of our messages—listen beyond the words, watch beyond the words
  • Be mindful of misalignment between body language/tone and the words, tone and body language are more honest
  • Remember your capacity to listen at a higher rate than others speak; resist the urge to interrupt, plan what you are going to say, or solve others problems
  • Paraphrase what you’ve heard to confirm, validate, clarify and increase trust and rapport
  • Be open, non-judgmental; we judge all the time; resist this with all of your mind and body

Most of these suggestions are painfully obviously, however not consistently applied.  In order for a message or conversation to be embedded into our minds and hearts, we must give it attention.

Who do you owe this to?  Yourself.  And every important relationship you want to keep.