“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” (Turkish proverb)
Through this article, Perfecting the art of Active Listening, we will explore the reasons many of us fail at listening, gain an understanding of the critical importance of active listening in interpersonal relationships and learn skill-building techniques that can help transform us from a passive to an active listener.
To begin this journey of discovery and understanding, we first need to examine the “Why”: Why are so many of us poor listeners? Is it a genetically inherited trait or a socially developed one? I posit that the answer perhaps lies in the following five reasons:
- Lack of formal training opportunities: how often do you see an Active Listening Skills workshop or university course advertised? Rarely, I would argue. The reality is that many of us receive more training in written communications but limited, if any, in active listening skill development, which is why many of us would rather talk than listen. We simply have not mastered this skill.
- We possess the ability to think faster than we speak: the average person speaks at a rate of 125 words per minute; however, we possess the mental capacity to receive and process words up to 400 words per minute (Lee & Hatesohl, n.d.). This provides us 75% extra capacity for mental chatter or perhaps mental multi-tasking of the errands we need to run or the work sitting on our desk.
- We practise lazy and inattentive listening habits: studies have shown that many of us retain only 50% of what is spoken after a 10-minute oral presentation. Within a couple of days that retention drops another 50% to a final level of 25% efficiency. Simply stated, we tend to process and retain only 25% of what we hear (Lee & Hatesohl, n.d.). Moreover, we often joke that our spouses use selective listening, but the sad reality is that many of us are selective listeners in life. By way of example, how many of us keyboard at work or at home when we are on the phone or check our text messages when we should be fully attuned to the person speaking to us?
- We lose our listening skills as we develop: research reveals that as kids progress through school their listening skills decline with each year, dropping from 90% in elementary grades down to 28% in high school (Nichols, 1957, cited in Lee & Hatesohl, n.d.).
- We fall victim to listening roadblocks such as mental fatigue or lack of interest in the person’s message.
By comparison, active listeners are characterized as those who:
- listen with their ears, eyes, head and heart;
- process and internalize a speaker’s words and feelings;
- put themselves in the speaker’s shoes; and
- check for clarity and understanding of a message.
At this point, you may be wondering why I am raising concern about a basic skill that we supposedly use and develop every day. We need only consider the increasing breakdown in marriages or our youth’s diminishing verbal skills to illustrate the negative impacts of our inactive listening skills in both personal and professional relationships.
Active listening is a critical life skill as it:
- is essential to building relationships and trust with others;
- builds morale of friends, families and co-workers;
- supports us in making important business decisions; and
- provides a communication pathway for creativity, partnership and invention.
So how do we become active listeners?
- We begin by being fully present: we give the speaker our full attention and park any biases, judgements or mental rebuttals.
- We use reassuring body language and gestures to convey our attention such as smiling, nodding, or leaning in to show we are interested, and/or words such as ‘yes’ or ‘I see’.
- We Listen with Heart by reflecting empathy, sincerity and curiosity, especially during emotionally-charged conversations. To quote Stephen Covey, we need to seek first to understand and then be understood. An effective listening skill is to validate your understanding of a message by employing clarifying statements such as, “What I am hearing you say?”, or by using open-ended questions.
- We discern mixed or unspoken messages by tuning into non-verbal cues such as anxious facial expressions, slumped posture, or shifting eye contact.
- We extend ample air space by refraining from interrupting the other person – common sense that is not so commonly practised. An effective technique is to list one’s thoughts or questions on paper when another person is speaking. This not only inhibits rude interruptions but also helps one evaluate the importance and sincerity of his or her response or follow-up questions. This technique essentially serves as a reminder that when in doubt to leave it out: in other words, it is perhaps better left unsaid.
- We practise RASA (Treasure, 2011), a sanskrit word meaning ‘essence’ that aptly serves as an acronym for active listening:
R- we Receive information without interrupting
A – we convey our Appreciation toward the speaker through attentive body language
S- we Summarize the other person’s key points
A- we Ask clarifying questions to check for understanding
Rachel Remen’s quote from skillsyouneed.com, perhaps best illustrates the value in Perfecting the Art of Active Listening, and its importance in personal development and interpersonal relationships:
“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”
Covey, S. (1990). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Developing powerful listening skills through effective exercises. Retrieved January 22, 2014 from http://www.cpai.com/business-insurance/employmentliability/
Lee, D. and Hatesohl, D. (n.d.). Listening: your most used communication skill. University of Missouri Extension.Â Retrieved January 22, 2014 from http://414.toastmastersclubs.org/ListeningSkill.html.
Listening skills (n.d.), Retrieved January, 22, 2014 from http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/listening-skills.html.
Tingum, J. (n.d.). Why is listening important in a business organization. Demand Media. Retrieved January 22, 2014 from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/listening-important-business-organisation-24040.html.
Treasure, J. (2011, July). Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better. Retrieved January 22, 2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better.html.
Lisa Kelly, Principal, Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence is a Certified Workplace Wellness Specialist with a passion for creating results-driven wellness solutions that optimize personal well-being and workplace performance. She holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education, Bachelor of Commerce Degree and Registered Holistic Nutritionist Diploma.