"If You're Talking, You Ain't Learning"

“A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”  – Wilson Mizner

How true! A good listener often knows a great deal more than a poor listener.

President Lyndon Johnson knew that. He had a sign on his desk that read, “If you’re talking, you ain’t learning.” He was right. You learn a great deal more when you’re listening instead of talking.

So it’s obvious that good listening is extremely important. But it’s also extremely rare. Studies indicate the average person is tuned in only 25% of the time. The other 75% of the time … the average person is thinking of something else.

And it’s no wonder. Most people have gotten little or no training in listening. In fact, Dr. Manny Steil found that only 5% of the American workforce has ever been trained in listening.

Does that cause a problem? You bet. Poor listening causes heartaches at home and confusion on the job. And the problem gets bigger if people are expected to pass on what they “hear.”

Consider the following. A colonel issued this directive to his executive officer: “Tomorrow evening approximately 2000 hours, Halley’s Comet will be visible in this area, an event which occurs only once every seventy-five years. Have the men fall out in the battalion area in fatigues, and I will explain this rare phenomenon to them. In case of rain we will not be able to see anything, so assemble the men in the theater and I will show them films of it.”

The executive officer told his company commander: “By the order of the colonel, tomorrow at 2000 hours, Halley’s Comet will appear above the battalion area. If it rains, fall the men out in fatigues; then march to the theater where the rare phenomenon will take place, something which occurs only once every seventy-five years.”

The company commander thought he got it right and told his lieutenant: “By order of the colonel in fatigues at 2000 hours tomorrow evening, the phenomenal Halley’s Comet will appear in the theater. In case of rain in the battalion area, the colonel will give another order, something which occurs once every seventy-five years.”

It was the lieutenant’s job to pass the message on to his sergeant. He told him: “Tomorrow at 2000 hours, the colonel, in fatigues, will appear in the theater with Halley’s Comet, something which happens every seventy-five years. If it rains, the colonel will order the comet into the battalion area.”

Finally, the sergeant told her squad: “When it rains tomorrow at 2000 hours, the phenomenal seventy-five-year-old General Halley, accompanied by the colonel, will drive his Comet through the battalion area theater in fatigues.”

On the serious side, poor listening can be terribly expensive. In terms of pure money, we have more than a hundred million workers in the United States. A simple ten-dollar mistake by each one, due to poor listening, would add up to a cost of a billion dollars, and most workers make at least one listening mistake a week.

Poor listening can also cost a great deal in the relational areas of life. We have more than three million divorces a year, and many of them are related to the inability or unwillingness of one or both of the partners to listen. And we have witnessed needless tragedies — where lives were lost in the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and the Challenger — because someone did not listen.

The good news is … listening can be learned. You can dramatically improve your listening skills if you follow a few simple practices.

That’s what I discuss my audio CD, “LISTENING: How To Stay Tuned In So You Don’t Get Left Out.” It’s a little investment in your communication skills that will pay off forever after.

But here’s a few tips to get you moving in the right direction.

=> 1. Be Willing To Listen.

In one of my seminars, I’ll ask the people if they’re able to turn their listening skills on and off. They all say “yes.” They’re able to improve their listening almost immediately–if and when they want to or need to. So it’s obvious that good listening starts with your conscious decision to listen.

=> 2. Assume Responsibility.

In other words, don’t sit back and wait for the message to be dumped into your brain. Take responsibility for getting the message. Ask yourself what you can do to get the most out of each and every listening experience. And then do it.

The Japanese have this down pat. In their culture, they believe it’s the listener’s job and it’s the listener’s responsibility to get the message. In fact, 90% of the responsibility is in the listener’s lap. No matter how good or bad a speaker or teacher might be, they’ve got to get the message! No excuses allowed.

Americans are a bit different. I’ve seen it. I’ve taught in American and Japanese universities, and I’ve noticed American students take a “lazier” approach. They expect the speaker to “give” them the message — and be entertaining as well. They figure if a speaker or teacher isn’t that good at delivering the message, they don’t have that much responsibility to listen.

If you’re going to be an excellent listener, or even a good listener, you’ve got to take responsibility for getting the message. There is no other substitute.

=> 3. Show Interest.

Maintain good eye contact, an erect posture, and active facial expressions. Nod your head and say such things as “I see…Yes…or…Uh-huh.” If you show interest, you’ll get more interested, and you’ll listen better.

I’ll give you several more ways to improve your listening in next week’s “Tuesday Tip.” But I also want to recommend an excellent resource. Check out Steil and Bommelje’s new book, “Listening Leaders: The 10 Golden Rules to Listen, Lead, and Succeed,” at www.listeningleaders.com. It’s well worth your time.

Action:  Go into three different work situations with the intention of being a better listener. Take responsibility. Tell yourself it’s your job to really, really listen. And then focus on what you can do in those situations to be the best possible listener.