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Are you listening, or are you just hearing? (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Are you listening or are you just hearing?

One of the savviest skills that a professional can hone is the ability to listen. I know what you’re thinking: “I spend my entire day listening! Listening to my boss talk at work, listening to my colleagues chat about their projects, listening to clients….all I do is listen!” While you may spend entire days doing those tasks, the truth is, you’re probably spending quite a bit of time hearing, rather than listening.

Listening is a complex process that requires not only hearing, but also attention, understanding, and remembering. The following steps outline the listening process:

Hearing: The first step in the listening process; requires limited distractions so that the entire focus can be on the speaker. In other words—was there background noise that caused you to lose some of the message? If you cannot hear a speaker, move to another room, shut down background noise, or ask them to meet with you in a location that is more conducive to hearing each other better (and therefore better listening).

Attention: The second step in the listening process; requires that we actually mindfully attend to the conversation. In other words—were you really listening to your coworker during a phone chat or were you checking email, or doing some other task that took away your focus? There truly is no such skill as multi-tasking. Instead, researchers have found that people micro-task—which means spending short bursts of information on one task and then switching quickly between tasks. The result is two or more tasks that have been half-heartedly accomplished rather than one task that has been given full attention.

Understanding: The third step in the listening process; even with the best of intentions to hear and attend to the conversation, we do not always understand what the speaker may be telling us. There could be a variety of reasons for this miscommunication including that the speaker doesn’t even know what they are trying to communicate, or they rely heavily on jargon or colloquial phrases. A simple communicative solution is to ask for clarification. Try a phrase like this: “I want to make sure I understand what you mean when you say ‘hit the ground running’, are you instructing us to start working on this project now or when we finish the previous project?” What you are doing is calling attention to the specific phrases that require clarification. The speaker knows you are paying attention, and you are directing the conversation towards a specific concern that requires extra explanation. Other instances require paraphrasing for clarification: “I just want to clarify—when you mean setting deadlines; you’re talking about the timeline for the overall project?” The clarification just makes sure all members are on the same page from the get go.

Remembering: The fourth step in the listening process; Did you know we can only recall about 20% of what we heard in a given conversation a mere 48 hours later? That means during a 60 minute meeting, you may only be able to remember about 12-15 minutes worth of content. Even with our best and most concerted efforts, we lose content over time. The reason is because you’re not just spending 60 minutes, you have about 47 additional hours to account for. One of the best tips for assisting in remembering the content is to jot down some notes or key words from important events or meetings as a means of recall later on—at meetings, in conversation with your boss or colleagues, even the details of medical appointments. If the situation isn’t conducive to jotting down notes (say, you’re in a job interview and don’t want to be scribbling notes) take a few minutes after a meeting or conversation (jump into a bathroom if you have to) and write a few ideas down to help jog your memory. When you go to write a thank you note for that interview, you’ll be glad you have some ideas to start from.

So there you go, the listening process laid out step by step. Thanks for listening!

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