If You're Talking, You're Not Learning

“I remind myself every morning: ‘Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening’.”
Larry King

You’ve probably heard people say such things as: “There’s no use talking to you… You never listen… But I TOLD you we had a problem weeks ago… and… I’m sorry. I forgot your name.”

You’ve probably heard your coworkers, employees, or sales reps say such things. And the same goes for your spouse, kids, and maybe even yourself.

And it’s no wonder so many people get it wrong when they’re trying to communicate. Most researchers conclude that the average person listens to only 25% of what is being said.

Bill Bradley illustrated that. In one of his books, he gave several examples of poor listening… examples that came from the answers given by 16-year olds on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Here are a few of them.

Question: Explain one of the processes by which water can be made safe to drink. Answer: Flirtation makes water safe to drink because it removes large pollutants like grit, sand, dead sheep and canoeists.

Question: How is dew formed? Answer: The sun shines down on the leaves and makes them perspire.

Question: What are steroids? Answer: Things for keeping carpets on the stairs.

Question: Name a major disease associated with cigarettes. Answer: Premature death.

Question: How can you delay milk turning sour? Answer: Keep it in the cow.

Question: What does “varicose” mean? Answer: Nearby.

Question: What is a seizure? Answer: A Roman Emperor.

Question: What is a turbine? Answer: Something an Arab wears on his head.

While that may be amusing, the cost of poor listening is deadly serious. As Dr. Manny Steil, the world’s leading listening researcher, exclaimed years ago, “With more than a 100 million workers in this country, a simple $10 mistake by each of them as a result of poor listening adds up to a cost of more than a billion dollars per year. And most people make more than one listening mistake every day.”

The result? In the business world sales are lost; teamwork is halted; and meetings have to be rescheduled. Documents have to be re-done and products need to be re-shipped.

And leaders seem to be especially vulnerable. As they move up in an organization, they think they have less reason to listen. BIG mistake.

By their very nature, leaders tend to be removed from the frontline of battle. To win in the world of business… or any other business… they MUST constantly listen to those who are in the trenches and rely on that information to make wise decisions.

In our personal lives, poor listening is a big factor in the deterioration of relationships. Steil found that newlyweds rate each other very highly as listeners, but that rating steadily falls as the marriage goes on. He says, “In a household where the couple has been married for 50 years, chances are that while there may be a lot of talking going on, very little reciprocal listening will occur. The result? Clearly, a great many of the divorces each year are related to the inability or the unwillingness to listen.”

My point? Good listening can help you avert more problems in the workplace — and at home — than any other one skill. It’s an incredibly powerful communication tool. That’s why I urge everyone to get a copy of my MP3 on “Listening: How To Stay Tuned In So You Don’t Get Left Out” and my book on “Brave Questions: Building Stronger Relationships By Asking All The Right Questions.”

Denise Wood writes: “I ordered your ‘BRAVE QUESTIONS’ book and gave it to my husband for Father’s Day. He loves it! I have to admit that I sneak the book away and use it too. In fact, your book has helped me in my business relationships as well as the relationships I have with my four children. Thank you for writing this book.”

But let me give you a few tips you can use… right now… to improve your listening.

=> 1. Listen for the key points.

Many people are disorganized when they talk. They’re not the easiest to listen to. They may give you tons of tiny details, go off on tangents, and talk in circles. Still, most people are trying to make a point. So look for that main point.

=> 2. Clarify what you are hearing.

It’s so easy to assume you understand somebody else… that you may not even bother to check out your assumptions. The customer rep, for example, may listen to the initial part of a customer’s complaint… and then assume she knows the rest of what is going to be said. After all, she reasons, she’s heard similar stories before.

Or it’s the husband who “half listens” to his wife talk about her day. He never clarifies what she says because he presumes it’s the same old same old.

Well, in both cases, I would say, “Be careful. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t automatically assume you understand the other person… because almost half the time you will be wrong.

It’s like the story of the Indian Chief.

It was autumn, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell what the weather was going to be.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared. But also being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, “Is the coming winter going to be cold?”

“It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed,” the meteorologist at the weather service responded. So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.

A week later he called the National Weather Service again. “Is it going to be a very cold winter?”

“Yes,” the man at the National Weather Service again replied, “it’s going to be a very cold winter.”

The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find.

Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service again. “Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?”

“Absolutely,” the man replied. “It’s going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”

“How can you be so sure?” the Chief asked.

The weatherman replied, “The Indians are collecting wood like crazy.”

The point is simple. You can’t ASSUME you understand somebody else. You’ve got to create understanding by clarifying what you hear. And the best way to do that is to paraphrase what you hear.

Simply put, once in a while you need to feed back to the speaker a shortened version of what you picked up. You should interject comments such as, “What I’m hearing… So what you’re saying is… and… If I understand you correctly.” The speaker will know instantly whether or not he needs to correct your understanding.

=> 3. Ask questions.

Listening isn’t a passive activity where you simply wait for the other person to tell you what’s on his mind. In fact, passivity is almost certain to hurt your listening comprehension.

You’ll get a lot more out of a conversation by being actively involved in the conversation. So engage the speaker with various types of questions.

Use door-opening questions such as, “Will you tell me more?” Ask opinion questions like, “What do you think should be our next step?” And ask for feelings, such as, “How did you feel when she said that?”

Please note… you’re not trying to direct or control the speaker’s comments. That’s not the point. Your questions should help you understand what is being said and left unsaid.

As author Robert Montgomery used to say, “We listen more than any other activity except breathing.” That makes it a common activity but not necessarily a mastered skill. And you’d better master the act of listening because it’s one of the KEY factors in your personal and professional success.

Action:  Ask three people how they would evaluate your listening ability. Ask them what you do well as a listener and what you need to improve as a listener.