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Bad at complying? You might just be a bad listener

Skill isn't easy in an age of interruption abetted by call waiting and instant messages

Whenever you enroll in soft-skills training for work — leadership, conflict resolution, team-player — there are aspects of the experience you can pretty much count on: You'll find yourself in a classroom with fluorescent lighting, unstainable carpet and motivational posters that invariably include puppies, elephants or monkeys.

There will always be a bulky binder for course materials, a pull-down projection screen and some form of journal or note card on which you can write your "learnings."

Your instructor will likely be unfailingly patient and well-informed. And there will be role-playing — a bummer for those of us just now getting used to ourselves. You almost always begin by exploding commonly held misconceptions and move on to a new set of skills that include some easier-said-than-done bullet points: "Clear your mind."

And so it went during a recent visit to Cornell University's school of Industrial Labor Relations for a two-day class on "The Power of Listening." If you go in with the assumption that you will be fixed like a slipping transmission, it's not very long into the listening exercises, questionnaires and videos before you might think to yourself, "I've heard enough."

But, then, of course, you probably weren't listening. Some people here take the course because it helps with certification requirements for certain jobs. Most attendees, ranging from labor-relations managers to a police officer, take it for personal development. There's usually someone who takes it because their bosses are looking to fix them. It's a course I've been wanting to take — almost as much as my family has wanted me to.

Just an hour into the first morning, you're likely to understand the limitations of your listening skills. Bad listeners tend to tune out dry subjects, get into arguments, fake attention, react to emotional words and daydream. (Wow, do humans actually drink from that encrusted water tower on the building across the street?)

While allegedly listening, bad listeners often are rehearsing what they're about to say, grab every conversational opening and scout for flaws in an argument.

By the end of the first day, you're not simply looking at a second day of course work but a long, slow rehabilitation.

The trick to listening better begins with readiness to listen, which, concedes instructor Jennifer Grau, isn't easy in an age of interruption abetted by call waiting and instant messages. It also helps a lot if you can set your judgments aside.

Truth is, bad listening often is blamed falsely when a listener has chosen not to comply. But Grau, raised in Brooklyn, isn't going to put lipstick on that pig.

"Sometimes the hardest part of listening is the mental part of getting yourself willing," she said.

Assuming you've overcome the hurdles, the task of listening to understand rather than simply to reply has three key elements: Iinvolved silence (eye contact, vocal encouragements), probes (supportive inquiry using questions like "what" as opposed to the aggressive "why") and paraphrasing ("What I think you said is ...").

That last step shouldn't simply be spitting back what people say, but integrating information about the speaker's attitudes and feelings, 55 percent of which is communicated nonverbally in body language (only 7 percent of feelings are communicated with words, according to Grau).

When you consider that these skills are culled from a longer list (awareness, attending, perceiving, etc.) it's clear that listening takes an awful lot of time, which few of us have.

"Efficiency and politeness are inversely correlated," concedes Grau.

We spend much of Day Two practicing our involved silence as classmates take turns talking about something important and listening to someone else. That means no eye-wandering, eye-rolling or slouching boredom.

The speaker in our little subgroup begins, "It's difficult to be green."

It turns out to be a marketing executive's struggle to reduce his carbon footprint. Even one laid-back administrative staff manager who, judging from her ability to recall all of the instructor's directions is also a varsity listener, is having trouble being attentive and mustering probing questions.

"There are no boring subjects — just unskillful listeners," Grau reminded us.

But the chips are stacked against the speaker — and the rest of us. Humans speak at an average pace of between 110 to 200 words per minute, but they can understand in a range of 400 to 3,000 words per minute.

"Human beings can't produce at the rate our brains find interesting," said Grau.

The final bit of advice before the session ends is to try out our new soft skills at home. My wife, who had asked me to make sure I returned her bank card to her before she left for work the next morning, ended up stranded at the subway station several blocks away without it. Her nonverbal communications accused me of not listening, but now I know it was merely a failure to comply.