We tend to listen (think) four times faster than we can talk. You’d think that was good, but actually it’s not, because our minds get bored and wander off.
Staying focused on someone else’s thoughts is tough, especially if the other person is anything less than a scintillating speaker. And few of us are.
But there’s nothing more powerful in the communications world than a skillful listener. We’ve all heard the old statistic about forgetting half of everything we’ve heard within 48 hours, and most of the rest within several days.
My suspicion is in today’s over-communicated world, the numbers are even worse. Sometimes I can’t even remember the sponsor of a favorite TV commercial minutes after it ran.
I was cleaning out some old reference files the other day, and came across a program developed by Sperry Corporation in the early 80s for its employees. More than 40,000 Sperry employees received the training over a 5-year period.
The program was developed by listening expert Lyman Stiel, a former associate of Ralph Nichols at the University of Minnesota. Nichols is generally regarded as “the father of listening” and Stiel is no slouch.
According to the Sperry program, here are ten keys to effective listening:
1. Find areas of interest – Don’t tune out dry subjects, ask “What’s in it for me?”
2. Judge content, not delivery – Don’t be distracted by poor delivery, look for the meat.
3. Hold your fire – Wait until you have received the whole message, ensure comprehension.
4. Listen for ideas – Get beyond the facts, listen for central themes and basic ideas.
5. Be flexible – Take fewer notes and concentrate more on the speaker and his/her message.
6. Work at listening – Relax and listen actively with facial movements, shakes or nods.
7. Resist distractions –This is for you cell phone junkies and laptop addicts. Put those away.
8. Exercise your mind – Use the speaker’s heavier content to stretch your mind. Dig in, don’t tune out.
9. Keep your mind open – Don’t get hung up on certain words, especially emotional ones.
10. Thought is faster than speech – Use that to your advantage: anticipate, summarize, weigh the evidence, and look between the lines.
The Sperry program was not intended to create “expert” listeners. They only professed to appreciate the importance of listening better, and they took the extra step of equipping their employees with specialized training.
Since listening is the most frequently used communication skill (ahead of speaking, reading and writing), but the least often taught, maybe it’s time we closed the gap.