Ineffective Listening - How to make it actually work?


By

Dr. Devendra Singh Raghav
M.A. (Eco.), M.Com, M.Phil., Ph.D.
Reader, Dept. of Economics
N.M.S.N Dass (P.G.) College
Budaun–243601

Deepa Gupta
Asst. Professor
Department of Management Studies
G.L. Bajaj Institute of Technology & Management
Plot No. 2, Knowledge Park–III, Greater Noida

Mukul Gupta
Asst. Professor
Department of Management Studies
G.L. Bajaj Institute of Technology & Management
Plot No. 2, Knowledge Park-III, Greater Noida
 


Our reluctance to listen is legendary, and there are many physical and psychological reasons why that is so. The first and most important Reason why we so often fail to listen is that we don't have the courage to do it.  There are many causes of ineffective listening, and all of us are guilty of some of them at some time. In fact, it is almost impossible to maintain a high involvement in listening all the time. We need to 'tune out' to give our minds a chance to rest, but we also need to be able to 'tune in' when we want communication to succeed. Let's take a look at some of the bad habits that keep us from listening well.

Assuming a topic will be boring

We often assume a topic will be boring, either because it has been boring previously or because we have no knowledge of it. We immediately decide that we will get nothing out of this communication and so we allow our minds to wander and we miss the message the speaker is trying to share.

Allowing the speaker's voice or mannerisms to overpower the message

We may not like the sound of the speaker's voice. Perhaps the accent or pronunciation grates on us. The speaker's physical appearance can also inhibit our listening. We may query the reliability of a speaker with unkempt hair and unfashionable clothing who is talking about marketing skills. We may be more willing to hear some messages from members of our own gender or from younger or older people. We are often guilty of stereotyping people and fail to remember that individuals have their own thoughts and opinions that should be considered.

Poor concentration

Poor listening can also be caused by problems of concentration. As young children, we have a very short attention span. As we grow into adults we develop the ability to be attentive for longer periods. However, some of us are more impatient while some are more skilful at concentrating for longer on difficult material. The vulnerable areas of bias, prejudice, beliefs and areas that are taboo often stimulate listeners to interrupt. This means that rather than listening to the complete message, we hear only trigger words that prompt us to defend our own viewpoints rather than listen to another's opinion. Particular topics or the ways in which certain subjects are presented can also affect a listener emotionally. Some subjects, or even words, may be so upsetting that they cause a person to stop listening.

Poor comprehension

Lack of comprehension skills also results in poor listening. We are sometimes unable to grasp the central idea of a speech or argument because we cannot discriminate the important information from the less significant. Some of the skills required for organising written ex-pression are also necessary for oral communication. Listeners, as well as speakers, need to be competent in organising ideas.  A speaker has often had a great deal of time to structure the message carefully, but a listener must be able to follow the ideas instantaneously. We sometimes forget that taking notes or drawing flow charts can help us to see the connections between concepts and thoughts. On the other hand, we sometimes become so involved in taking copious notes; we completely forget to listen to meaning.

Passive listening

Listening is a complex physical and mental activity and for this reason it requires energy on the part of the listener. If we are tired, unwell or upset it becomes difficult for us to concentrate. Even good listeners are not able to function properly if they are not physiologically equipped to be attentive.  If there is background noise or some form of distraction, more effort is required to listen. If the speaker is not skilful, the listener needs to take an even more active role for the communication to be successful. Poor listeners are easily distracted by their surroundings and are unwilling to help a failing speaker.  We all need to accept our share of the responsibility for successful communication by trying to develop good listening skills. With a bit of effort, we can also make a great improvement in our listening skills.

As with other ways of communicating, our involvement in listening is influenced by the purpose of the communication. Are we listening for information or will we be required to make a calculated judgment? Is there an important personal reason or responsibility to listen carefully? Sometimes it is exceedingly important for us to grasp the full meaning of the material the speaker is communicating. Whatever the purpose, improving listening skills will help us to be better communicators. The following suggestions should help you become a better listener.

Be prepared to listen

Since listening requires physical energy we need to be prepared both mentally and physically to listen efficiently. We all need sufficient rest and sleep in order to function properly so that we can participate more effectively and be more involved. In most Western cultural contexts we need to show a speaker that we are attentive by establishing eye contact and maintaining alert posture and facial ex-pression. Such ex-pressions of interest on our part will have a positive impact on speakers and will enable them to express themselves even more effectively. Good listeners attempt to minimise distractions. They try to organise their physical environment to be conducive to hearing and understanding the ideas of the speaker. This may mean closing doors or windows, or moving to a quiet room. It may mean recording or diverting all incoming telephone calls. It could also mean arriving early at a popular lecture to get a front-row seat. Mental distractions also warrant some attention if we are striving to be effective listeners. It is important to develop the ability to place total concentration on one subject for a period of time. This is a discipline of mind that we can develop with practice.

Listen with an open mind

Condemning a topic as boring will prevent us from gaining anything at all from the communication. To listen efficiently we need to look for ideas that have some relevance or even minor interest for us, so that we do not leave empty-handed. All of us would benefit from trying to learn something from each new experience. Good listening, however, does not imply that we need to agree to or accept what is communicated. It means that we need to try to understand ideas, even if they are alien to us. Practicing tolerance towards others will probably also enable us to present our ideas without interruption. A message is composed of both words and feelings. Effective listeners learn to be in control of their emotions. They recognise when prejudice and bias are influencing their perception of the situation. They are aware of speakers who attempt to stimulate their emotions or arouse their passions. They are able to discern conflicting messages, such as saying you are not nervous but with a hesitant tone of voice. Good listeners are also patient. They try to hear the whole message before commenting or questioning.

Listen with empathy

Another effective listening technique is to put yourself into the speaker's shoes. When we try to see a situation from someone else's point of view, or feel their hurt or pride, we can come closer to sharing their meaning. We can also paraphrase the speaker's ideas by putting them into our own words to check that we have received the meaning intended. Speakers often have difficulty expressing strong emotions. Good listeners interpret all the signals and let the speakers know they are genuinely interested in understanding both the speaker's ideas and feelings. Empathic listeners avoid making judgmental or dismissive remarks when a speaker is talking about a concern or a problem. In other words, they focus their attention on the speaker, not on themselves or on the direction they would like the conversation to take. Twelve empathy blockers have been identified (Bolton 1995) which do not build trust and which discourage the speaker from opening up. Imagine how you would feel if you expressed a concern and your listener responded with any of the following remarks.

Empathy blockers

1 Ordering: 'Make sure you discuss it with her.' 'This is what to do.'
2  Warning: 'If you do that you won't succeed.' 'You'll regret it if you do that.'
3  Moralising: 'You should contact him more.' 'You ought to get up earlier.'
4  Advising: 'If I were you I'd apply.' 'Try to organise your time better.'
5  Arguing logically: 'There are many reasons to consider, let's work through them.' 'If you look at the facts you can see that you can't do it now.'
6 Judging: 'You made a real mess of it, didn't you.' 'At last you got it right.'
7 Praising evaluatively: 'You are always such a good team member.' 'You did well, didn't you.'
8 Name calling: 'You union reps are all alike.' 'Another typical management view.'
9 Diagnosing: 'You're just saying that to impress me.' 'What you really mean is that you are afraid of the consequences.'
10 Reassuring: 'You'll be all right.' 'It will be OK, you'll see.'
11 Interrogating : 'Why did you keep doing it?' 'Tell me exactly what you said.'
12 Distracting: 'I've got something else to tell you.' 'That reminds me of another issue.'

Empathy enhancers

Instead of these empathy blockers, you can use door openers or encouragers, such as 'Would you like to talk about it?' Open questions like 'What ... ?', 'When ... ?', 'Where ... ?', 'How ... ?', can encourage speakers to expand on issues and explore their ideas and feelings about concerns and problems that may be bothering them.

Active listening

Listening isn't an easy task, especially if the material is difficult or the speaker's accent makes it difficult to understand the words. However, like any physical and mental activity, listening can be improved with practice. Try to concentrate on the main ideas. Look for pattern and organisation in the way information is presented. Pay attention to the development of ideas and then note the principal ideas or argument. Be conscious of the need to prepare for some listening situations by reading or viewing a video or film. If we are more informed about matters, we will be able to get greater benefit from listening to a talk on that subject. Good listening improves our ability to understand and remember information. One way of accomplishing this is to take brief, meaningful notes when possible. Note-taking does not necessarily mean writing down information word for word. Sometimes it may be necessary to ask someone to repeat figures, statistics or statements, whereas on other occasions all we need is a list of headings and points. It will all depend on the nature and purpose of the information. Whatever the situation, note-taking skills are very useful, especially if we are flexible and accurate.  We can make use of the difference between speaking and listening to relate what we are hearing to what we already know. Most people talk at about 125 words a minute, whereas thinking can be measured at 500 to 1000 words per minute. The discrepancy between the two speeds can create problems unless we concentrate on what is being said and use the spare time to reinforce the message. Finally, an effective listener is aware that communication is a two-way process. Unless a listener accepts a share of the responsibility for its success, communication is doomed to failure.

Types of listening

Different listening behaviour is appropriate for different situations. Some listening activity requires a great deal of listener involvement in terms of concentration, whereas other kinds of listening do not require as much involvement. Listening can be graded according to degrees of involvement, from the level requiring a great deal of personal involvement to the level where only minimal effort is needed.

Listening for analysis

When we are listening to something for the purpose of evaluation and analysis, a great deal of concentration is required. This kind of listening occurs in board meetings, formal discussions, sales presentations or conferences, in which listeners are assessing the value and credibility of information being communicated. We need critical and analytical skills to recognise and assess the quality of facts, inferences, assumptions and observations being communicated so that we can arrive at valid conclusions of our own.

Listening for comprehension

Another kind of listening activity may be only for the purpose of understanding and comprehending what is being communicated. We need to understand most things that we hear, but some messages are more important to us than others. We do not need to evaluate or analyse all interpersonal oral communication, but we should show empathy and understanding so that communication can continue. Human beings in all sorts of relationships should listen carefully to one another so that they can understand other people's beliefs and feelings.

Listening for relaxation

Another degree of active listening requires less involvement because it is a part of our everyday experience: it is simply listening for pleasure. We are not trying to remember or understand in an analytical way. Some people are very gifted in the art of pleasant conversation, and it is very relaxing and enjoyable to listen and respond to them. Light music also forms an important part of this type of listening and is capable of creating moods and stirring feelings. Background music in lifts, offices, shops and factories is there for mood-creating purposes. Some people listen for relaxation and enjoyment to the sound of the radio while at home or driving a car, but they do not need to listen attentively to the words being communicated. Listening effort In all kinds of listening, a listener must know the purpose of listening to the message being communicated. In this way we can focus on what we need to gain from information communicated orally. When we listen to a speech or lecture there is often a need to shift from one level of concentration and intensity to something less demanding, depending on the relevance of the messages we are hearing. How and when we listen will affect our understanding of experiences with people and events. Effective listening techniques can remove barriers in communication and increase our knowledge and comprehension. Our listening skills and techniques can always be developed and improved so that we can become better speakers and listeners in the process of communication.
 


Dr. Devendra Singh Raghav
M.A. (Eco.), M.Com, M.Phil., Ph.D.
Reader, Dept. of Economics
N.M.S.N Dass (P.G.) College
Budaun–243601

Deepa Gupta
Asst. Professor
Department of Management Studies
G.L. Bajaj Institute of Technology & Management
Plot No. 2, Knowledge Park–III, Greater Noida

Mukul Gupta
Asst. Professor
Department of Management Studies
G.L. Bajaj Institute of Technology & Management
Plot No. 2, Knowledge Park-III, Greater Noida
 

Source: E-mail November 3, 2006

     

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