Why are so many of us bad at listening?

Outstanding managers are always good communicators, and good communicators are always good listeners, says Peter Hughes.

Why are so many of us bad at listening?
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The festive season is approaching. It’s been a good year for the business and the managing director (MD) is in a relaxed and benevolent mood. He calls the production manager into his office.

“Joe, you might have heard that tomorrow morning at 9am there’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun.”

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Joe nods and the MD continues: “It’s a rare occurrence. Let’s get the workforce out to watch it. I’ll explain the phenomenon, but if it’s cloudy or raining, let’s assemble in the canteen.”

Joe meets the department head. “Sid, by order of the MD there’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun at nine tomorrow. If it’s raining we’ll follow the disappearance of the sun in the canteen. This is not something we will see happening every day.”

At the afternoon meeting with his section managers, Sid announces: “Guys, the MD has decided that we should follow the disappearance of the sun in the canteen at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. He’ll tell us whether it’s going to rain, which doesn’t happen every day.”

The section managers pass it on to their foremen: “If it’s raining in the canteen tomorrow morning, which is something that we don’t see happen every day, the MD will disappear at nine o’clock.”

The message finally reaches the rank and file as: “Tomorrow morning at nine o’clock the MD will disappear in the canteen, something we’re unlikely to see happening every day.”

Twisted message

A beautiful, clear morning dawns and only the MD, Joe and Sid turn up to witness the eclipse.

You can just imagine the conversation that took place between them in trying to pin down the source of confusion.

“But I told you precisely what I wanted to do,” says the MD.

“I’m not sure what’s happened,” says Joe. I communicated your message quite clearly,” says Joe.

“When are our section managers going to start listening?” asks Sid.

Brain capacity

Why are so many of us bad at listening? Steven Gaffney, global authority on communication, says the fundamental problem is that our brains can process words at 600 words a minute, but people only speak at between 150 and 200.

As a result, people go into ‘mind drift’ and misinterpret, twist or alter the message.
Adding to this imbalance between brain capacity and speech generation, there are a number of inborn character traits that affect the ability to listen effectively.

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I have one of them. I am an impatient listener. From my childhood I remember my mother chastising me for being impatient, intoning the mantra, ‘patience is a virtue and virtue is a grace’.

Little did I realise how this characteristic would affect my ability to be a good listener. The best advice I ever got to deal with this problem was “slow down and listen to the space between the words”. I’m still trying.

Another crucial characteristic is the one of empathy, which is the ability to see oneself in the shoes of another. Empathetic people are always good listeners.

They hear not only the words but also the ‘space between the words’, which often conveys more that the words themselves.

As a result, they receive and understand communication coming their way and seldom mix things up as Joe and Sid did.

A giant killer to effective listening is sensitivity to status. If you ever feel a sense of irritation building up and stop ‘listening’, take a moment to reflect on whether it’s not your own sense of self-importance that’s blocking your listening ability.

Outstanding managers are always good communicators, and good communicators are always good listeners.

Good listeners always follow these behaviours:

  • Listen more than they talk.
  • Never answer questions with questions.
  • Never daydream when others are talking.
  • Never let their mobile phone or anything else interrupt.
  • Provide feedback.
  • Seldom interrupt.
  • Take notes while listening.
  • Often ask speakers to repeat if they don’t understand.
  • Rephrase and repeat what has been said to ensure they understand.

Ask a few colleagues, including your boss, peers and subordinates, to indicate ‘true or false’ for each of the activities listed above as they apply to you.

Like me, you might also be aware of your poor listening ability, but luckily it’s never too late to learn and correct.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.