Given the amount of technology devoted to various forms of communication, it’s curious how little attention we pay to just listening. In fact, we’re rubbish at it.
Research carried out by Michigan State University, and cited by the Harvard Business Review, found that the average listener remembers only 50% of a talk they’ve just heard, no matter how carefully they thought they were listening. A couple of months afterwards, most people remember less than 25% of it.
Clearly, the ability to listen is crucial. When you’re receiving instructions or being presented with information at work, you need to hear the whole message. If you’re only taking in 25%, are you sure that’s the important part?
And what if your business depends on listening to customers? Most of them do nowadays. When consumers expect a slick user experience and have the power to eliminate brands who don’t provide it, we can’t afford not to pay attention to what they’re saying.
Are you a good listener? Or are you hearing without listening? The answer lies in whether or not you are an active listener.
What is active listening?
Active listening doesn’t just happen naturally. That’s hearing. As the name suggests, it’s an active process – a conscious decision to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what’s being said. Active listeners withhold judgement, reflect, clarify, summarise and share.
It’s a rare skill, and most of us don’t have it. This isn’t necessarily our fault. Life isn’t just busy – it’s noisy too. We’re distracted by clatter, half thinking about something else, only half listening to what someone else is saying.
Given that we’re moderately bad at listening most of the time, there are some occasions when we are, frankly, truly awful. Let’s take situations of conflict. How often, for example, have you assumed prior knowledge of what your opponent is about to say? You’ve heard it all before, so you get busy formulating a response. Instead of paying attention you’re simply `waiting to speak’, focusing on how to win the argument. This rarely ends well, and no one wins.
Active listening is, in many ways, the polar opposite of how most of us communicate on a daily basis. It means taking a back seat, giving the other person time to explore thoughts and feelings. Rather than jumping in with questions, comments or opinions, active listeners are patient (and brave) enough to leave silences, using and reading non-verbal signals to aid communication.
What are its benefits?
There are quite a few – but let’s start with the fact that active listening increases knowledge, reduces mistakes, increases efficiency and builds trust.
One of the techniques of active listening is summarising and clarifying. Once you’ve taken care to pay attention you then repeat, in your own words, what the speaker has said. It isn’t necessary to agree, you simply state what you believe you’ve heard. The speaker can discover whether you’ve accurately understood – and if you haven’t, they can explain some more.
By listening effectively, and then checking you’ve heard correctly, you’re able to grasp the exact information that’s needed. This enriches learning, aids memory and reduces the chances of making errors. At the same time, summarising and clarifying sends a clear signal to the speaker that they’re being heard and understood. You’re someone who can be trusted to listen.
This is just one of the many techniques of active listening – and we’ve barely begun to describe the positive effects of improved listening skills on your personal relationships, client relationships, and your business growth. Once you become aware of the listening problem, you hear it everywhere.