The wonderful expression, “You have two ears and one mouth”, is a good reminder for us to use them in proportion. Talk less and listen more. The better you listen, the more you will be listened to.
Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. That is why listening is one of the most important skills to have. But why is listening so difficult?
Listening isn’t just a passive activity – one that we simply sit back and let the speaker’s words wash over us. It is an active, intentional, and focused effort, in which factors such as noise, attention span, bias, mental blockage, and even technology come into play. Let’s explore each of these factors and learn how to be a better listener.
Whilst physical noise is the most obvious reason that inhibits listening, psychological noise plays a big part in causing distractions. The listener’s inner voice that goes on simultaneously as the other party speaks prevents the listener from giving the speaker their full attention.
Our brains process what is spoken faster than it can be said, creating a gap for our minds to wander and do other things. How often do you find yourself thinking about your own response just as when the other party is talking? You may have your eyes locked on the speaker, but your mind drifts away to recall if you have locked the door behind you this morning or think of how to excuse yourself to use the bathroom. We get impatient with slow speakers because our inner voice is saying, “Hurry and get to the point!”
Semantics, such as jargons, mispronunciations, or euphemisms, can also confuse the listener. Struggling to interpret a word or phrase, the listener may fall behind in understanding the rest of the message.
Most of the time, the occurrence of distractions is neither party’s fault. Being aware of these noise sources can help both the speaker and listener work together and establish a conducive set-up for a productive conversation.
Research suggests that the information age has changed the general attention span. Ever wondered why TED talks are 18 minutes long? That’s because 18 minutes is exactly one unit of optimal attention span, short (or long) enough for the listener to take in information. Some people can hold their attention even longer, but these are outliers. When we add noise into the equation, people lose focus and stop listening after a few minutes.
As a speaker, take steps to consider your listener’s attention span by keeping the conversation engaging and relatable. Pick the right timing to hold the conversation and ensure that the key message is delivered before your listener’s attention wears out. As a listener, your attention span fluctuates according to how interested you are in the topic or speaker. Make the other party feel understood and heard by giving the speaker your undivided attention.
We are all guilty of bias listening. Quoting Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” What we hear, what we believe we understand, what we want to understand, and what is understood – may not be the same. The speaker’s body language and tone of voice can tell a different story. Your listening and interpretation may be influenced by past events, preconceived notions, what other people outside of your conversation are saying, and unfortunately, your judgement or internalized prejudices of the speaker or topic.
Keep your biases in check and listen with an open mind to receive new information or perspectives. To ensure that you got the right message, seek clarification. Repeat or paraphrase the core message the way you understood it and confirm that your interpretation is correct. On the part of the speaker, check for understanding, and ask and invite questions.
As listeners, there are times when we fear that the information presented to us is too complex for our understanding. This is what Wheeless (1975) has defined as “Receiver Apprehension”. As a result of such anxiety, we avoid the conversation or be forced into “listening”, developing a mental blockage at the back of our heads, tuning ourselves out, and retaining very little information at the end of it. As a speaker, if you anticipate this ahead of the conversation, make sure that you speak in the capacity of the audience’s knowledge level, using simple terms and making an effort to help the listener fully comprehend.
“I disagree with you. So, I am not listening.” People worry that by showing that they listen, the other party may assume that they agree with them, hence losing their ability to defend their views. In difficult conversations, it is inevitable to want to win. If we can be curious about the other person’s story, it can help us understand their perspectives and work towards joint problem-solving. You do not have to give up your own views in learning someone else’s side of the story. In initiating active and empathetic listening, the other party will likely reciprocate and also listen to you.
Listen with Caution in the Digital Space
Technology does not make us good listeners, but it is not going away, so is fake news. Even with regulation, like it or not, deception and disinformation will always be lurking in the shadows in the digital space.
Being exposed to all sorts of information online, from websites to social media, we must know how to practise critical listening and apply logical thinking and reasoning to the messages we receive. Separate the truth from what is misleading or fake and differentiate facts from opinions by actively seeking factual evidence from credible sources to validate and evaluate information. Beware of those “speakers” who can’t convince and resort to confusing their audience. Use your education, and be a smart and critical listener.
Saylor Academy. Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. 2012. https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_stand-up-speak-out-the-practice-and-ethics-of-public-speaking/index.html. Accessed 7 May 2021.
Technical University of Denmark. Abundance Of Information Narrows Our Collective Attention Span. 2019. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-04/tuod-aoi041119.php. Accessed 7 May 2021.
Keaton, Shaughan A. The Sourcebook of Listening Research: Methodology and Measures. 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319444111_Informational_Reception_Apprehension_Test_IRAT. Accessed 7 May 2021.