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How to listen actively

1. It's a fact

The average person spends at least one-fifth of his or her life talking. Ordinarily, in a single day, enough words are spoken to fill a fifty-page book. Over a year, the average person’s words would fill 132 books, each of at least 400 pages.

On the other hand, listening occupies on average around 30 per cent of our waking time. Listening is used more than talking, three times as much as reading, and four times as much as writing.

2. Viewpoint

"The reason we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less."

Zeno of Citium

3. Quotable quote

"We receive little training in listening, and probably spend little time eval-uating or refining our listening behaviour or practising our listening skills - unlike the time we spend in reworking or rehearsing our public speeches. But studies of management activity have shown that those in leadership positions may spend up to 60 per cent of their time listening and it is, therefore, important that we focus more of our attention on the way we listen."

Robyn Johnston in Leading the Way, Mandy Tunica, ed., Macmillan, Melbourne, 1995, p. 147.

4. Don't forget

Consider this handy advice…

  • Listening often means not saying anything, even when a speaker doesn’t get right to the point. Cultivate patience.
  • Be aware that, while your mouth may be silent, your body may be speaking volumes. If you’re fidgeting or not focusing on the speaker, you probably aren’t really listening.
  • Emulate the body language of the speaker. Adopt alert posture and maintain eye contact. Let your body show you’re interested.
  • Keep an open mind. If your staff sense that you’re unwilling to listen to their ideas, they won’t tell you about them.
  • Don’t judge ideas by the way they’re delivered. Many people have good ideas but can’t express them well.
  • Be willing to listen to all your staff, not just your senior people.
Bill Marriott in The Spirit to Serve.

5. Here's an idea

Become a better listener by stepping up the Listening Ladder:

L: Look at the person speaking to you.

A: Ask questions.

D: Don’t interrupt.

D: Don’t change the subject.

E: Empathise.

R: Respond verbally and nonverbally.

Bits & Pieces.

6. Now listen to this

The higher up the ladder you climb, the more listening you will do. Fortunately, it's never too late to start improving your listening skills. Try these strategies:

  • Get your emotions under control. Emotions colour what we see and hear and prevent us from focussing on what is said.
  • Avoid labels - 'boss', 'employee', 'customer' tags can place limitations on what you really hear.
  • Concentrate. Effective listening is hard work.
  • Resist jumping to conclusions.
  • Keep your ego out of the conversation. The issue is not you, but what the other person has to say.

7. The lost art

Effective listening is a lost art in many organisations where people are so busy trying to justify themselves that they fail to hear what is being said to them. Nobody can see all sides of an issue immediately. It takes time for new facts, claims or concepts to sink in. When someone comes to you with an idea or complains, listen - just listen. Don't answer or explain. If necessary, take notes on exactly what is being said. Then try to imagine that the person is right, or at least justified. Put yourself in his/her place and imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. Finally, give yourself time to think it over before deciding. 'Let me get back to you on this' is far better than an instant, and wrong, judgement.

8. Microsoft will listen

"Some of the smart people we're hiring now are a lot smarter than I am… They're extraordinarily talented and will contribute new visions. If Microsoft can combine these visions with listening carefully to customers, we have a chance to continue to lead the way."

Bill Gates in The Road Ahead.

9. No greater asset

The ability to listen, really hear what someone is saying, has far greater business implications, of course, than simply gaining insight into people. In seling, for instance, there is probably no greater asset.

Mark McCormack in What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School.

10. The future's foundation

If the idea is on-trend for the future, the consumer won't know yet whether she'll want it or not. Be cautious about taking her rejection too seriously. Instead, listen for 'creative builds' on the idea, or listen to how she associates the new idea with other things in her life right now: a great source of future usage clues… Being able to hear what the consumer is saying is the foundation of our trends. And, if the truth be known, it's the foundation of the future.

Faith Popcorn in The Popcom Report.

11. Actively listen to converse

Active listening, says Allan Pease in his bestselling 'Talk Language', is an excellent way of encouraging others to talk to you. The interest you show will frequently lead people to expand upon their comments. The fact that you are not critical of their thoughts and feelings will help you feel comfortable and to self-disclose more and in greater depth than they otherwise might have done.

Active listening also helps you to solve the age-old problem of not having anything to say. If you're frequently tongue-tied, you're probably trying to pay attention to two conversations at once: the one you're having with the other person and the one you're having with yourself. The latter typically consists mostly of worries about your performance. Paradoxically, says Pease, the more you listen to those worries, the less effective your performance will be.

Active listening encourages you to set aside this troublesome self-talk, to get involved with what others are relating, and to experience what they are feeling. Pease says that you'll be surprised to find that when you concentrate on your conversational partners rather than on yourself, you will find it far easier to think of things to say. And, since you've paid them such close attention, it will still be more likely that they'll want to hear it.

12. Wise words

The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'.

(Alfred Brendel, Austrian pianist)

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.

(Shakespeare in Hamlet)

The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less.

Zeno of Citium, ancient Greek philosopher