Much has been written, in this column and other places, about the importance of speaking in the communication equation. Good, important information, but let me point the discussion in a completely different direction. Let’s zero in on listening as a key for any great communicator.
First understand that listening is actually quite a difficult skill to master. Know why? Our brains work faster than our mouths! Simply put, while we’re talking, anyone who is listening is often ahead of us — their brain moving at three times the speed of the words we’re putting out. The average person speaks at about 125 words a minute. The average listener can comprehend information much more quickly, so listeners minds tend to wander — and the next thing you know your audience hasn’t heard a word you’ve said for the last 30 or 40 seconds. While you are talking, they are off thinking about other issues or are taking your line of reasoning in a completely different direction!
There are two very important issues to remember when you think about listening. First, what it means for you as a speaker and second, what it means for you as a listener/boss/employee/leader or audience member.
As a Speaker: If you know your audience may wander off at any given moment, it brings a certain urgency to your message. Suddenly you realize that the 10 minutes of history and detail you had planned for the presentation may need to be shortened and made more relevant to the audience.
While detail and background are important, you have to realize you can also lose people when they feel the information has little connection to their lives. Speaking at 125 words a minute, they will try to find an idea they can jump on — but not for long. Suddenly they’re thinking about what they need to pick up on the drive home tonight!
As a Listener: While not all of us are giving presentations everyday, we all are listening — whether at home, on the job or just out in everyday life. Especially for anyone who plays a leadership roll in an organization, listening skills can be THE KEY to how people judge your leadership abilities.
A good listener grasps IDEAS, not just facts. While the individual facts can be important, piecing together the IDEAS and listening for all of the cues the speaker is providing results in far better listening and better overall communication.
Also, practice active listening. Pay special attention to what a person is saying and then offer a summary of what you understand is being said.
And here’s the great news in all of this — better listening results in less busywork, meetings and memos. People who practice listening need fewer follow-up meetings, e-mail reminders and babysitting! Good listeners make better bosses and effective employees!