Collaboration Requirements: Listening Skills

Back when everyone had land line phones in their homes, the joke going around was about the poor wife who would be stuck for a whole afternoon tied to the phone listening to her mother-in-law complain about her husband, her married son who ignored her, her terrible hairdresser, the nosy neighbor, the awful waiter, etc. The punch line to the joke was that after 10 minutes of listening to the mother-in-law, the sweet wife would set the phone down on the counter and proceed to make her "mother-in-law's married son" who "ignored his mother" a scrumptious dinner. About every 10 minutes, she would pick up the receiver and grunt an "uh-huh" into it and set it back down. Ten minutes later she would exclaim, "Oh my," or she would say "Really," into the receiver. All the while, the mother-in-law would continue jabbering away, oblivious to what was happening on the other end of the line.

While this could arguably be called multi-tasking, it is not effective listening -- although many practice similar listening traits when talking with people in the workplace, at meetings, and even while conversing face-to-face. Less than 2 percent of the people have any formal type of education on how to listen. When trying to make a point, or convince someone to do a certain thing your way, it is common for the reply to be, "I hear you," or "I know what you are saying." And therein lies the problem – you don't want them to "hear" you, even though you probably are saying to yourself, "Good, they are ‘listening' to what I have to say." Notice the disparity in words between the two statements – "hear" and "listening." These two words mean two completely different things. Hearing is simply "a way of receiving input." That is why there are "hearings" in court – it is so the different sides have a forum where they can present their case. The court system offers the forum for the hearing. Both sides in the case are truly hoping the judge, jury, media, and people in the forum are "listening" to their side of the "hearing."

These differences explain why people have such a hard time communicating with each other. This explains why there are so many "misunderstandings." It's like the childhood game of "sharing a secret" or some call it "postman." One individual whispers a sentence to the first player, who then whispers what he heard to the next person in line. This continues down the line, until all the players – usually six to 12 people – have been told the "secret." The last player then reveals what was said to him. His message is compared to the original message the first person has written down. The two messages are never alike. Most of the time the two messages are indistinguishable and everyone wonders how that happened since the message was immediately shared with the next person in line, and everyone is certain they repeated the message word for word. Experts say people filter out, rephrase, or change the intended message in 70 percent of their communication. Only about 30 percent of any actual intended message is repeated. That explains how the children's secret was so convoluted at the end of the line – each person kept changing about 70 percent of the message. They were hearing, but not listening.

Now that we understand there is a difference and have defined "hearing," let's look at what it takes to "listen," and how to become a great "listener."

What Listening Entails

The Chinese are an ancient civilization with history showing the Shang dynasty forming in what is now the central area of China in about 1766 B.C. A lot of their alphabet is a form of pictures or art. The Chinese verb, "to listen," is actually made up of the Chinese characters for their "eyes," "attention," "open heart," and for their "ears." The Chinese knew it took more than their ears to understand what a person was trying to tell them. They understood that it takes "listening" to grasp the full message, so there are no misunderstandings, misconstrued ideas, or fallacies in judgment. They understood that listening is something that takes a lifetime to learn – it's a venture, an endeavor, and it can be a struggle at times.

Notice one thing is missing from the four active parts of the "to listen" verb in the Chinese language – the mouth. To be a great listener means you must stop talking. Yes, that sounds obvious, but too many people forget it when listening. Listeners want to interrupt, interject, and influence the messenger with their own take of the message. The first thing to great listening is learning the fine art of lip-lock – the science of being quiet.

As you can see from the Chinese verb's four activities for listening, this activity is not passive, as most people believe, but actually is a complex and active undertaking. Active listening takes preparation, thought, at times major activity on the listener's part, and a focus on the complete message – not just the words being spoken. Listening can be work, which is why 50 students can sit in a classroom and only about three or four receive A's on the final exam. It wasn't that they were the smartest in the room, but they were the students who worked at listening to the instructor.

Before the students took the test, they had to prepare. Most students prepare for the test after all the classroom instruction. They look over their notes, read through their textbooks, cram with a friend on an "all-nighter" before the test day, and then hope they pass. They started preparing too late for the final. What the three or four students did, was start making preparations before the first day of class. They prepared to listen. There are three joint aspects to the "preparation" or learning to listen – future, mid-term, and immediate.

Future preparation means learning now, for pay-off down the road. This means listening to a lecture, briefing, or some other type of message that is "over your head," and concentrating on what is being said and trying to grasp the message the speaker is attempting to convey. This takes hard work and can be frustrating for the listener. What this effort accomplishes is opening your mind to new ideas, trains of thought, and it teaches you to focus. It also should light a fire under your intellect to broaden your vocabulary and knowledge base. All these things play a part in being a great listener, and making you a success at whatever endeavor you may undertake.

Mid-term is where the "smart" students in the previous example excelled and gained their advantage. They didn't crack their books open the first day of class, when the instructor said turn to page so and so, and let's look at the following example. No, they had looked at the class syllabus and read all the corresponding material prior to walking into the classroom. They already had the required background information and had a list of questions they were looking for the answers to in the class. They knew what the teacher was going to be talking about, and they were familiar with the discussions. In essence, they were prepared to listen and learn.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Collaboration Skills course?

Immediate preparation means sitting up and opening your ears, eyes, and mind for listening. Like the Chinese said – it takes more than the ears to listen. When the speaker is opening their mouth to speak is not the time to be opening your notebook to take notes, or scribbling with your pen to try and get it to write. When the speaker is beginning to speak, is not the time to check your phone for messages, or try and remember if you locked your door. It's time to listen to the speaker's words, look at their examples, and notice their body language. It's time to listen and take notes.

Because you were knowledgeable and prepared, you could be flexible with their listening. No two situations are alike and the "smart" students and prepared listeners realize this. No two classrooms are the same. No two boardrooms are the same. No two teachers or lecturers talk the same, or present the material the same. The audience is not the same, so the atmosphere isn't the same, either. All these things, along with how you, the listener, feel that day, play a part in your listening abilities. If you are familiar with the topic, then the room temperature, you're being hungry and embarrassed by your growling stomach, or a classmate who likes to tap his pen on his desktop, or the person who likes to smack their gum, will not interfere with your ability to understand the message the instructor or lecturer is conveying. You can still effectively listen, because you are familiar with the information; and since you were aware of some of the barriers – the room's acoustics, the presenter's style, and possibly the pen-tapper – you were prepared to overcome those hurdles.

Is this type of preparation only good for students? No, the same holds true for any given listening opportunity – workplace briefings, meetings, volunteer situations, sales pitches, etc.

Preparation is one of the major keys to success in any circumstance especially with listening. The main reason for the preparation is so you, as the listener, can then focus on the ideas being presented and the speaker's key points. Studies show that people who focus on these two areas in a presentation tend to grasp the whole message better, and have better long-term retention.

Wanting to listen is important, or your actions will betray your words. Have you ever knocked on a co-workers door and asked them if you could speak to them for a moment? The co-worker looks up, stops what they are doing, and invites you in. You sit down and began explaining the issue, telling the story, or explaining the reason for the interruption. A few minutes into your dissertation you notice your co-worker is looking at papers on their desk or scrolling their computer. You notice the person is not listening to you. Their body language does not match what they are saying. As a listener, there are times when you feel you must listen to be polite, but you do not really want to listen.

Being a great listener also means biting your tongue, at times, and finish listening to the message. Say, a co-worker who has been helping you on a project stops by your desk and begins to inform you they lost a major portion of the project's information, which could put the project at least a week behind schedule. You fly off the handle and get really upset, before you allow the co-worker to explain what happened. What you find out later, if you had kept your mouth shut, was their computer hard drive crashed and it was not his fault. Since it happened, he has called IT and they are going through the company's archives and are retrieving the information, and the supervisor said it should be available by tomorrow morning. The lesson is there are times where you must be an analytical listener, but do not make a judgment until the whole message has been given. There's a reason for the proverb, "Don't shoot the messenger." It's not because you should feel sorry for them but because if you shoot them you might not get the complete message resulting in a faulty decision or judgment on your part.

Tips for Success

Do not get the impression the listener is at a disadvantage. In fact, the opposite is true. The listener actually has the advantage over the presenter. A speaker, unless trained at rapid-rote speaking, only is able to say between 120 to 180 words a minute. The mind, on the other hand, is able to process approximately 500 words a minute. This is where the difference is made between a listener -- and a great listener. The great listener uses the differential between speaker and listening to their advantage. Instead of letting their mind wander to what is on the lunch menu, they organize the material being presented in their mind; they anticipate the next key point; and they formulate questions. But what if there isn't a time set aside for questions – what is the listener to do? Remember there are time differentials between the message output and your input. This time can wisely be used by the listener for retention preparation by asking the following questions:

  • What is the point of the message?

  • What are the main ideas I should retain?

  • How does this information fit into the big picture?

  • How does this information supplement the information I already have been using?

By looking for the connections between the information you already know, and the new information being presented, helps with retention and your own growth as a person. Of course, this requires concentration, discipline, and focus on your part.

In case you haven't figured it out, it is time for the great revelation – we're all human. With that revelation is the important fact that you, as an individual, will walk into any situation with biases. This simply means everyone has likes and dislikes and these can misconstrue a speaker's message. If that is a problem, then collaboration will not take place. People will not be open to a true discussion of the situation or problem, and will not analyze it from all angles or perspectives.

With that in mind, don't let your biases turn off a messenger because you feel what they are saying is boring or unimportant. Do not evaluate a message until the messenger has completed their presentation. If you are tempted to tune out, then tune in through empathy.

  • Put yourself in the messenger's shoes, and look at things through their eyes, to the best of your ability.

  • Review what they are saying and summarize it into key points.

  • At the same time, look for something within the message that is personal to you and will add some value to your life.

These simple steps will keep you tuned in, listening, and in collaboration with the rest of them team.