When we think of communication, most of us automatically think of how we express ourselves orally and in writing. But how we express ourselves is only half of communicating. The other half is listening to what others have to say. Most people aren’t very good at it.
It’s no wonder people have trouble listening. The brain can process 450 words per minute, while the average person speaks only 150 words per minute. When we are “listening” to another person talk at this relatively slow rate, what do our brains do with the extra time? We may listen selectively, presume we know what the other person is saying, daydream, plan what to say next, or tune out. Often we don’t pay purposeful attention to the words being said or their intended meaning.
Another factor in listening is that different people process information differently. Extroverts tend to think out loud, while introverts weigh things silently and more methodically. The contrast is especially apparent in meetings, where some people feel compelled to share their opinions on most subjects while others remain quiet, mulling over the content and considering carefully what they think. And when they do decide, the extroverts are already discussing the next topic! The way we take in information, and the rate at which we respond to it, thus may cause uneven participation at meetings.
While I wish I had the perfect solution to these predictable problems in organizations, I can suggest a few ideas. Review Keys to Good Listening for tips on how to listen better. At meetings, invite the quiet ones to share their views and allocate time for all to contribute either during or after the meeting. One client wanted to develop more effective listening and meeting effectiveness in the organization and offered through us a program called Enhancing Listening Skills. Participants learned about their natural listening style along with practical ways to improve listening skills in general and in meetings.
Listening isn’t only a “nice to have” personal ability in business; it’s a “need to have” in order to maximize profitability. How much money does your organization spend on poor listening and how much can be saved by improving listening skills? If you have 100 employees and each employee misunderstands or miscommunicates instructions resulting in a productivity loss of only $5 a week, the cost of that $5 over the course of a year is $26,000!
Listening is a skill that can be learned. Just as we learn to express ourselves, we can focus on specific behaviors that improve how we listen. Though it may not come naturally, listening can become an acquired habit with willingness and practice. And bottom line, the listening half of communication pays huge dividends in job performance and productivity.
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