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There’s more to listening than meets the ear

Table of Contents

Posted Nov. 14, 2018

Listening is critical to effective communication.

Most people seem to think that listening equals waiting for our next chance to speak. We often only half-way listen, as our minds wander, or we spend the time thinking about the next thing we’re going to say.

However, this kind of passive, half-hearted listening can be counterproductive, preventing us from truly absorbing and understanding what we’re hearing. Now-classic research from the University of Minnesota has found that the average person, after listening to someone talk, remembers only about half of what they heard. The researchers even describe how people fail to listen: they do start by paying attention but then make repeated mental “dashes” into side topics (as the mind wanders) before returning their attention to the speaker(s). Many of these “dashes” last too long, resulting in missed information.

So how can we strengthen our active listening skills?

First, realize that “listening is a full contact sport,” as Psychology Today puts it. That means listening with more than just your ears: position yourself to focus fully on the speaker(s) and watch them carefully to pick up nonverbal cues.

Second, devote yourself to the task. One study on the effect of interruption on listening and comprehension found that when they put participants “On High Alert” for a cell phone notification that never actually came, listening comprehension improved by 43%. The researchers theorized that participants had mentally “loaded” more cognitive resources in preparation for both listening and waiting for an alert; and when the alert never came, it left them with more cognitive capacity to process what they were hearing.

Third, listen actively and reflectively. Most people are fairly passive in how they listen. Instead, embrace “active listening.” This means letting the other person lead the conversation (e.g., refrain from inserting your personal or points until you’re sure you’ve understood what the person is saying) and asking open-ended questions. Even if you think you understand, reflect statements back to the speaker by paraphrasing (not parroting) them to make sure.

Ultimately, the key is to regard communications as a collaboration. Even if it’s a TED Talk and not a one-on-one conversation, there are still two participants in the exchange – the speaker and you, and you have an active role to play.

Speaking of which, can speakers do anything to facilitate listening in their audience?

Yes! Take the same steps good writers do to engage their reading audience: stay focused on the topic and focus on clear statements to prevent minds from wandering. In addition, keep presentations, speeches, and statements as concise as possible to reduce the cognitive load required. That way, even if the listener hasn’t devoted enough cognitive resources, they might still walk away with a clear understanding.

There’s more to listening than meets the ear

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(503 Reviews)