Listening to Reply vs. Listening to Understand

Friday, May 5, 2017 - 10:00

Listening is arguably one of the most difficult skills in communications, and we're getting worse at it.

In 2006, Dr. Ralph Nichols (who established the first study in the field of listening nearly 40 years ago) calculated we spend 40 percent of our day listening to others, but retain just 25 percent of what we hear. By 2011, sound expert Julian Treasure, in his TED talk "5 Ways To Listen Better," found in his research that we now spent as much as 60 percent of our day listening to others, perhaps because ‘it's a louder and louder world.’

Treasure is probably on to something, but the real issue is a combination of two other innate issues involving the human brain.

A study at Princeton University ("Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication," by Charles G. Gross, June 19, 2010) found a lag between what you hear and what you understand. Depending upon the individual, it could be between 5 and 60 seconds. The trouble starts in this lag-time because we tend to listen to ourselves and not the other person. As a result, our comprehension plummets.

What causes this lag time? It might be as simple as our physical and emotional state. More likely, we’re distracted by our own thoughts and opinions, also known as confirmation bias or our tendency to pick out facts or aspects of a conversation that support our pre-existing beliefs, values or perceptions. In other words, we only listen for what we want to hear.

Confirmation bias is arguably connected to how slow people speak versus how fast we listen. The Harvard Business Review ("7 Tips for Effective Listening" by Tom D. Lewis and Gerald Graham) cites research which says most individuals speak at a rate of 175 to 200 words per minute, where people are capable of listening and processing words at a rate of 600 to 1,000 per minute. Because the brain isn't using its full capacity when listening, the brain drifts off to other questions.

This phenomenon is called Miller's Law, after psychologist George Miller who said in 1980 that ‘In order to understand what another person is saying, you have to assume that (their answer) is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.’ Miller found that many people apply this principle in reverse, or what's known as competitive listening. They hear something and have a negative reaction, because they believe what the other person said is false.  Listening stops, and communications breaks down.

Of course, there are other culprits. The speaker can also cause the delay in listening, because of the volume, pace, tone or accent of their voice, their non-verbal communications (gestures, eye contact, among others). Then there's outside interruptions too, either technical (phones, gadgets, emails, squawk boxes used for conference calls) or physical (noise, an uncomfortable or too-comfortable chair).

My own exploration of listening began when I was asked to teach a workshop on listening. I had a curricula on listening, but it seemed too lecture-ish, so I began to look for ways to make it more conversational (the irony!). The thing that struck me then – as now –is that the single trick to listening better is in the word concentration. I used to think it was about forcing yourself to listen better. In fact, it's about allowing yourself to listen better. What's the difference? A lot.

Concentration is a hard task for more people – basically because it's tiring. If you force yourself to concentrate, your brain will work to a point, then become exhausted, then shut down, if not switch to autopilot. Scientists call it "neural decoupling."

To allow yourself to listen better, you need to think and work in a different way. Instead of forcing yourself, become more passive.

1. Get rid of outside distractions.

Put everything down. Shut out everything. Breathe slowly and deeply. Physically relax and get comfortable.

What about notes? Do you really need to take notes? Ask the person to follow-up with their points in writing, if necessary. If you must, make short punchy notes. If you find yourself clarifying your notes instead of listening, stop immediately.

If you're not ready to listen - for example, you've been caught unawares in the lift, a topic comes up as a tangent during another conversation - say you're not ready to listen, but also schedule a more convenient time for both of you in the immediate future.

2. Open your mind.

Don't judge. Only listen. If you have a problem focusing, repeat what the person is saying in your head.

3. Listen for the big picture, not the details.

Think of it this way. You walk midway into a lecture. You may immediately understand the words and sentences, but you will not immediately understand the overall purpose. Until you get the overall point, it's easy to misconstrue the facts or put them into the wrong context. Facts - especially when they differ from yours - will immediately cause you to listen competitively.

4. Note - but don't judge - non-verbal communications.

How are they sitting? How's the eye contact? Is their speech fast or slow, smooth or broken? What aren't they saying? Also, be aware of the vividness effect - that you become more drawn to sensational, vivid or memorable aspects of the speech instead of the substance of the speech. Again, if needed, repeat their words in your head to give you focus.

5. Do not jump to conclusions or interrupt.

Until they've finished speaking, don't talk. That said, you can gently ask the speaker to repeat themselves, but always do that between their sentences.

Once they finished their point-of-view, you'll notice that you respond less quickly. You'll need a minute or two to compose a considered response in your head. This may be both a bonus and a shock to the speaker. Few people expect the listener to be contemplative, so they might be genuinely surprised they were heard and understood. This may also change their initial perception of the conversation to come. At the same time, they might be distrustful, so you may also need to tell them -  genuinely of course - that you're thinking about what they said.

A common objection to this style of listening is that reflecting slows down the conversation and gets in the way of decision making. Maybe. Reflecting takes more time, but by listening to understand means you can save time too, because you won't have errors in communications.

6. Paraphrase the big picture, then add in details.

This step allows you to demonstrate you’ve listened. Or, if you've missed a point, you can demonstrate you want to hear their points more exactly. Begin with the overall point, then add the details. Another trick: speak from their point-of-view, not yours. Don't add emotion.

7. Challenge yourself first.

It's very possible you will disagree with the speaker. If so, ask yourself: Why might this speaker’s message be true? Under what circumstance might this be true? These questions force you to put yourself in the shoes of the person in front of you, and it becomes much more difficult to argue with this person. (Remember, you can understand a person, but not agree with them.) The best way to handle #7 is to ask non-confrontational questions. A bad question might be ‘How on Earth could you have thought that?’ A better way would be: ‘I’d be interested to know why you think that?’

Any thoughts on proactive listening? What techniques have you used to listen better or more efficiently?

About the Author: Andy Eklund

With nearly 30 years of career experience, Andy Eklund is a facilitator at the Australian Institute of Management (AIM), focusing on communications, negotiation, conflict management, business writing and corporate innovation. He’s held senior positions at such global organisations as MasterCard International, Burson-Marsteller and Weber Shandwick. He’s also formerly the national director of facilitators at AIM. His website is