Very early in my career I learned that there is more to listening than just hearing the words that someone is saying.
When I was about nineteen years old and working for TransCanadaPipeLines, I had developed the bad habit of continuing to work on whatever I was doing when someone stopped at my desk to talk to me. I heard every word they said, and thought I was simply being very efficient; multi-tasking before I’d even heard of the term.
But that all ended one day when a young co-worker stopped by to talk to me about a problem that she was working on; a problem that she thought I might be able to help her with. I continued doing whatever I was doing while she talked. Suddenly she shouted, “You’re not listening!” I assured her I was. “Well,” she said, “you’re eyes aren’t.” That experience, and many others since, helped me develop some observations about effective listening.
To be good listeners we have to pay close attention not only to what’s being said, but also to how it’s being said. This means paying attention to the tone of voice and inflection as well as the actual words themselves.
For example, take the simple six-word sentence, “I never said he stole money.” Say it six times while emphasizing a different word each time and you will see it can have six different meanings.
Stand in front of a mirror and say “I love you” with a snide tone of voice and a sneering expression and see how believable the words seem.
The most common listening mistake is listening for the wrong reason. Most people, most of the time, listen with a view to determining what they’re going to say when the other person gives them a chance. (It’s unfortunately true that most people wouldn’t listen at all if they didn’t think it was their turn next.)
We shouldn’t listen to determine what we’re going to say; we should listen to understand what the other person is saying and then think about what we’re going to say.
Quite often what a person is saying (and how they’re saying it) doesn’t tell the whole story. In these cases we have to rely on non-verbal clues, and sometimes the clues are subtle. Watch for these subtleties because they’re clues that the person needs some probing in order for the listener to truly understand the message.
We should watch the speaker’s body language and look for gestures and mannerisms that are unusual for the person, such as furtive glances or hand-wringing. As the young woman at TransCanadaPipeLines said, we need to listen with our eyes as well as our ears.
Another example is when we hear generalities from someone who usually uses clear and unmistakable language.
When we encounter any of these non-verbal clues we may have to ask specific questions to find out what the message really is.
Another listening mistake is interrupting people. Applause is the only interruption that’s ever appreciated. We sometimes have to listen a long time to find out what a person is really saying (most people don’t make a long story short until it’s away too late) but we need to remember that the other side of listening-too-little is talking too much.
Sometimes it takes courage to speak up; other times it takes courage to just listen.
Honing our listening skills will have a number of positive results, not the least of which is that it will make us better conversationalists and more pleasant for people to be around. It’s a fact that listening well, and making the occasional appropriate comment, is all we have to do to entertain most people.
We learn by listening effectively. When we’re talking we can only repeat what we already know, but by listening we learn what other people know. And thoughts are worth more than money. If you and I exchange five dollars, we will still have the same amount of money as we started with. But when we exchange ideas, each of us has one more idea.
Maybe if we listened better history wouldn’t have to repeat itself so often.