A wit once observed that, "A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something."
A good line, but it makes listening sound like a rather passive activity when actually it's as active a pursuit as speaking.L.K. "Manny" Stiel, who owns a consulting firm in North Oaks, Minn., that teaches listening skills, said most people think the responsibility for successful communication lies with the speaker, leaving listeners in a more inactive role.
But listening is not just hearing, or remembering or understanding, he said. "Listening is the complex, learned, human process of sensing, interpreting, evaluating, storing and responding to oral message."
Given that, he urges listeners to take equal responsibility.
"If each individual would assume a minimum of 51 percent responsibility for successful communication, we'd have a minimum of 2 percent overlap." As each side assumes more responsibility, the more common ground is established.
Unfortunately - and predictably - becoming a good listener is not simply a matter of paying attention.
A big pitfall is that men and women listen differently. That's little problem when men talk with men and women with women, but when the sexes converse with each other, misunderstandings can arise.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, says in her new book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation" (William Morrow, $18.95), that the difference lies in the conversational styles of women and men.
Her research and that of others shows that conversation between women includes strong facial responses, direct eye contact and encouraging cues such as "Yes, yes," and "Mmm-hmmm." They sit facing each other, often leaning in. Men in conversation sit at angles facing away from each other and assume a more casual posture, have little eye contact or facial responses, and regard silence as proof that the other is listening intently.
So when women interject words of encouragement in conversation with men, "men assume women aren't listening because they're talking too much," Tannen said. "They think you should listen silently."
The Japanese have a word, "aizuchi," for this listener talk. "It means a constant stream of response. A lot of `Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.' They all do it, but women do it more than men."
Moreover, men regard the encouraging "yes" as a sign of agreement, while women use the word to show that they're following the conversation. When the woman then disagrees or offers another viewpoint, the man may feel misled or that she is insincere.
Likewise, women think men aren't listening when there is an absence of verbal and physical listening signals, while men think their silence conveys their full attention.
Tannen said these conversational styles are rooted in a child's peer interaction, which is rooted in centuries of socialization. Boys, by and large, learn to use language as a means of asserting their independence and gaining status, while girls learn to use language as a means of seeking confirmation, creating intimacy and giving support.
A woman's tendency to include details that create intimacy is one reason that men often think women never get to the point. And a man's tendency to share his knowledge makes women think that all men do is lecture.
Tannen stressed that no one is at fault.
"It's not that most men are intentionally dominating women," she said. "It's the style differences themselves that end up being domineering. Men learn from early on to try to take over the conversation, to switch the topic to their topic. If everyone is doing that, there is a balance." But because women don't do this, an imbalance exists.
Sometimes, she added, the accusation of not being a good listener is less a question of style than of the speaker's expectations.
"When people complain that others aren't listening, it's really that they don't like the reaction they're getting: `You don't understand what I said in the way that I meant it,' or, `You're not responding as I expect you to respond.' "
Unfortunately - and predictably - it's not a question of learning 10 Tips to Better Listening.
"In an age of buying potions to make us slimmer, more handsome, have better breath or darker hair, we're looking for push-buttons and quick tips and it's impossible in a day or even a week to become a better listener," said Warren Gore, associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. "You have to change the picture in your head of the behaviors that will make you a better listener."
"Good listeners are selfish listeners," he said. "They're not turned off by the mannerisms of a speaker, or the person's clothes or the color of their hair. They say, `What's in it for me?' The poor listeners are always finding ways to tune out: `Look at that character. Look at the tie he has on. That voice is driving me crazy.' "
Tannen said parents can help by making children aware of differences in the way that men and women communicate. Adults already hamstrung by their verbal habits can improve communication by being aware the differences exist and adjusting their styles.
"I think awareness can go a long way," she said, explaining how she often analyzes how a conversation is going while in the midst of it. Then, if you detect some misunderstanding, "talk about it."