The difficulty of being a ‘good’ listener…

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“Listening is being able to be changed by the other person” – Alan Alda

Listening seems to be a dying art !

Other than psychiatrists, counselors or coaches, very few have the time, skill or patience to listen.

In our daily conversations, most of us display poor listening skills, as we get impatient, are distracted by messages or are simply ignorant of how to listen deeply.

Just to clarify, this post is not about how to listen. (The internet has tons of information!) This post is more to explore why we do not listen.

Do try out an experiment.  When you are at work or elsewhere, observe any two people talking and focus on the listener (the person listening for a brief moment, as the other person is speaking). There is a good chance that the listener’s body is fidgety (as he waits to answer back or react), eyes wandering (mind is more on what to say next) and a look that says “let me speak now” or “let me go”!

Frankly, how much of the below given behavior is demonstrated by us when listening to someone?

  1. We focus on the words, tone, body language and facial gestures of the other person.
  2. Allow moments of silence when the speaker pauses.
  3. Respond with appropriate gestures like nodding our heads, eye contact and correct facial gestures, encouraging the speaker to continue.
  4. Avoid any distracting gestures like eyes wandering off, stiff pose, vacant look or movements which are discouraging to the speaker.
  5. Generate deep curiosity, suspending all judgment as we absorb the verbal and nonverbal data coming at us.

In various surveys, Listening has been identified as the most critical skill gap for leaders today. (As per multiple surveys, more than 45% employees who leave organizations cite “no one listened to us” as the key reason). In a survey done by, more than 85% participants gave ‘lack of communication’ as a reason for business failure.

As per estimates, more than 35% of an employee’s time goes into clarifying communication, in which poor listening plays a major role. You can do the math in terms of the revenue loss due to poor listening.

Yet, most corporate leaders and supervisors continue to struggle with this aspect of communication, as the organizations devise new ways to build learning skill in their leaders and employees.

Why is it so difficult to listen deeply? Let’s look at some facts:

  1. We listen at the rate of 250 words a minute but think at the rate of 3000 words/minute. (No wonder, our thinking crowds out the words we are receiving).
  2. In a face to face conversation, up to 90% meaning is derived from nonverbal communication. (So good chance of getting disconnected if we are not ‘watching’ the person).
  3. In today’s connected age, an average person has 1800 interactions per day (email, phone, direct etc) which means managing multiple communication most of the time. (So mostly we are in a distracted state while ‘listening’ to someone).
  4. Listening is a learned skill and only 2% people have been effectively trained in it (Many of us have no clue what is effective listening all about).

Poor listening is also caused by factors like prejudgment (“this guy knows nothing”), confirmation bias (“I am hearing what I believe is true”) or sheer lack of concentration.

A state of ‘curiosity’ is critical for deep listening. Most of us acquire it in childhood but unfortunately tend to lose it later, as our experience gives us the illusion that we ‘know it all’.

Seemingly, the mental space of ‘deep listening’ is in stark contrast to the alpha state of action, initiative, risk taking and decision making which is highly desired in leaders. Both ( listening and action) are important for truly inspired leadership, but it’s not easy to switch frequently between the two all the time. Thus leaders end up compromising on the truly ‘patient hearing’ required of them, in favor of action and decision making.

So how does a leader balance the two, in the practical situation of everyday conversations, meetings, deadlines and work pressures?  We may possibly consider a paradigm of “successful” listening, with basic rules to be applied as much as practically possible.

These rules could be:

  1. Be curious and ready to explore.
  2. Minimize preconceived notions or judgment.
  3. Rephrase to understand better
  4. Ask questions.

Just following these fundamental rules, even for a fraction of a conversation, may improve our listening ‘quotient’ significantly.

Look forward to comments or feedback!

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