Are you a Pathetic or Empathetic Listener? And how to fix it.

Most of us have had enough of the pandemic that has disrupted … in some cases … ruined every aspect of our lives these last 18 months. But you may not be aware of another pandemic that has been disrupting our relationships, our organizations, and our civility these past few decades. It is the pandemic of Pathetic Listening.

You see it everywhere. You see it at work. One study asked several thousand workers to identify the most serious fault observed in executives. The most frequently cited response, mentioned by 68% of the respondents, was the boss’ failure to listen.

You see it on “so-called” news programs or talk shows where the guests spend more time yelling at each other or interrupting each other than listening to what the other person has to say. It’s pathetic.

You see it in relationships. Oftentimes, when you observe a dating couple, you will be struck by their excellent listening skills … how tuned in they are to one another. But five years later into their relationship or marriage, one person might be checking their email or watching TV while the other one is speaking.

What are the results of our Pathetic Listening pandemic? According to Dr. Manny Steil, founder of the International Listening Association, the average untrained listener is only tuned into or getting 25% of what is being said. And that’s never healthy.

So how can you go from being a pathetic 25% listener to one who gets 95% to 100% of what is being said? These are a few skills I teach in my various programs and to my coaching clients.

► 1. Decide to listen.

Great listening begins with your decision to listen.

In one of my programs, I ask the attendees a question. I ask them, “How many of you can turn on your ability to listen if you need to or want to?” All the hands go up. So it’s obvious that good listening starts with your conscious decision to do so.

I had to learn this the hard way. When my daughter was little, she would often say, “Daddy, Daddy,” hoping to get my attention and have me listen to her. Frequently, I would respond with a “Not now… I’m busy… Later… Stop bugging me.” In fact, I put off listening to her so often that it severely damaged our relationship for years … until I made a conscious decision to listen.

Years have passed since then. And one realization has hit me very hard. I can easily remember her pleas for me to listen, but I can’t remember one single thing that was so important that I refused to take the time to listen to my daughter. Don’t make the same mistake I made.

Decide to listen. It will instantly and dramatically improve your listening effectiveness.

It’s what Ty Inglis, a CPA at the distinguished firm of Eide Bailly LLP, picked up at my Journey-to-the-Extraordinary experience. Ty says, “Before the Journey, I would often continue to work or be distracted when staff members came into my office. This approach left people with the impression that I was not interested in them or their concerns. After I attended your Journey program and learned the amazing techniques you taught us, I have made a concerted effort to employ the listening techniques that we learned. This has made me a better listener and has dramatically improved my relations with my staff.”

► 2. Listen for something you can use.

Pathetic Listeners always have a reason to not listen or listen well to others. They might say the other person is boring, or their topic does not relate to them, or they don’t have the time to listen. All of those reasons could be legitimate.

However you might excuse your own poor listening, please remember that you can get past that and turn yourself into an excellent listener by asking yourself one question. “What is this person saying that I can use?” I’ve found that little three-letter word “use” to be extremely powerful in keeping me focused.

Dr. Manny Steil says you never know the precise moment an important fact or idea will be presented by someone… but there will always be one. So be on the lookout for what he calls the “value moment of listening.”

Personally, I like what British author G. K. Chesterton had to say about pathetic listeners who think others aren’t worth listening to. In his words, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” In other words, look for something you can use and you will become a much better listener.

► 3. Remove physical barriers.

When there are some “things” between you and the other person, listening can become more difficult. If you’re on a job site, for example, and there’s a piece of equipment between you and the other person, it will be harder to hear as well as pay attention.

Or if there’s a desk between you and somebody else, the desk may imply that one person is “above” the other, and that kind of discomfort will not help the listening process. One researcher found that only 11% of patients are at ease when the doctor sits behind a desk, but 55% of the patients are at ease when the desk is removed.

The physical barrier might be your hearing. If you can’t easily and clearly hear what is being said, all the listening skills in the world won’t do you much good. If you’ve got a hearing problem and something can be done about it, do it. It’s something that everyone in your life will appreciate.

The baseball legend Casey Stengel had to learn that. He turned up in Florida one winter wearing a brand-new hearing aid. When someone asked him about it, he replied it was the best hearing aid on the market and it cost him several hundred dollars.

“My,” said the questioner. “That must be a good one. What kind is it?”

“Half past four,” replied Casey, glancing at his watch.

Getting personal again, about removing the physical barriers to effective listening, my wife and I got into the bad habit of speaking to one another while we were in separate rooms. My wife might be in the living room and I would start speaking to her from the office or vice versa. And as expected, we couldn’t hear half of what was said or understand the other half. It led to lots of frustrations and arguments.

We finally fixed it by setting a rule in our family. It says, “I am not responsible for hearing, understanding, or remembering anything you say to me when I’m not seeing the whites of your eyes while you’re talking to me.” The rule has changed our speaking and listening behavior and worked remarkably well.