Question: Are You a Good Listener?
Answer A: Yes
Answer B: No
Answer C: Sometimes
The correct answer to the above question, for you and for me, is:
If you think about your circle of friends, work associates and family members, you can almost certainly pick out one or more people among them who are generally not good listeners. They’re too busy listening to themselves or rushing around impatiently, or whatever. You have probably become accustomed to their weakness in this respect, whether you like it or not. If this person happens to be your boss, you’re in bad luck, but far from alone.
Equally, if you think hard, you can probably think of someone you know who is a very good listener. If you’re fortunate, that person is a good friend, loved one, close colleague, or mentor. If that person is your boss, then it’s equivalent to winning the Mark Six, and you are very lucky indeed.
All too often, we associate the benefits of good listening skills with achieving very specific outcomes, like following the boss’s orders (aimed at getting a job promotion, etc.), getting a good test score (aimed at gaining admission to a good school), completing a list of assigned tasks (e.g. doing the household errands in a timely manner, aimed at avoiding harsh words from the higher authorities).
We tend to undervalue the importance of our listening skills as well as the scope of their potential application. We think of them as something pretty basic, which we mastered in our formal schooling, along with dictation, rote learning, studying for tests, obeying instructions, etc.
This is a shame. Someone should have taught us that listening skills should be the focus of ongoing, lifetime learning and development, related to but separate from the life-long quest to improve our language and communication skills.
Think about the number of failures, misunderstandings, screw-ups, flare-ups, arguments and disputes which occur because two people or groups didn’t listen to each other effectively. We’re surrounded by this kind of outcome yet, all too often, we don’t analyze the root problem, or work on improvement steps.
We still tend to treat listening skills the way we treat learning to walk or learning to ride a bicycle: we think that once we’ve acquired them, we’ve got it; we’re done, and ready to move on to the next thing. Wrong. The problem is that people and language are far more complex, varied and subtle than the roads and trails we travel on.
Apart from the fact that poor listening skills often erode effective dialogue between people, think about the upside potential. If we were able to consistently reduce routine misunderstandings in our conversations at home or at work by a factor of, say, 20-30%, there would be welcome dividends in efficiency, elimination of tiresome repetition and clarification, and just plain enhanced good vibes. What’s not to like?!
If we’re intrigued and enticed by cutting our carbon footprint by 20-30% or more, why not get equally focused on cutting our “confusion footprint” by a similar measure? The world around us would also benefit from this.
Often, the best talkers are the worst listeners. I have interrupted many glib, smooth-talking salespeople by asking how they could be so presumptuous as to try to sell me something without even asking about my needs. This is still a very common mistake.
Effective listening relies on the ears, in partnership with the mouth. Asking is to listening as yin is to yang.
Most of us need to develop our patience in the context of listening. The older we get the more challenging this is, because we tend to think that our great, deep body of experience entitles us to offer advice on a wide gamut of questions and issues, solicited or otherwise, especially to people younger than us.
If someone confides in us about something, we tend to assume they are seeking our advice. Maybe not. Maybe they just want a receptive ear and a supportive smile. That’s part of the challenge of listening — determining when the speaker wants a response, or advice, or feedback, and when they’re just looking for a good listen. To figure that out, sometimes we need to ask, which is an integral part of the listening process.
What are you doing later today? Why not go out of your way to do a better job of listening to somebody? If needs be, raise your question to statement ratio, to ensure you get to the heart of what they are trying to say.
It just might do you — and them — some good.