The 2-Minute Thought: Learning to Listen Better

People are terrible listeners.  An oft-cited statistic is that we spend 60% of conversation time listening to others but can only remember 25% of what is said. 

In an article on what they call the “Plateau Effect,” Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson wrote that half the adults asked to sit through a 10-minute oral presentation couldn’t describe the content even moments later – and 48 hours later, 75% of listeners couldn’t recall the subject matter.

The problem, say Sullivan and Thompson, is that the human brain can digest as many as 400 words per minute, but speech never comes to you that fast.  Even the fastest speakers can spew out only 125 words per minute. 

That means that with all that excess brain capacity, your mind naturally goes out in search of other information.  You may look like you are engaged in conversation, they say, “But soon, you hear a squirrel in the trees outside.  You notice that the woman across the room has colored her hair.  You see a tile on the floor that is cracked.  You are tempted by the false god of multitasking.  And you are lost.”

We live in a world with increasing distractions – and we also probably get less practice listening than in the past.  Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal cited a study by Laura Janusik of Rockhurst University that found that in 1980, students spent 53% of their time listening to others face-to face -- but in 2006, that was down to 24%.  And Janusik says, we’ve fallen out of the practice of listening and remembering because “we can always Google it and find it again.”

Shellenbarger in her Wall Street Journal column lists some common listening problems as: 1) Being too busy thinking about what to say next; 2) Listening only long enough to see if the speaker’s views match your own; and 3) Interrupting with solutions before the problem is identified.

But perhaps the largest problem is that we filter so much of what we hear based on our own assumptions and expectations.  Consultant Julian Treasure, who has written and spoken about listening extensively, says that our own values, beliefs, and cultural orientation determine what we hear -- but we aren’t even conscious of those filters.  The result is that we often discount information from people we feel aren’t important.  In fact, Shellenbarger cites a 2011 study that found that “the more powerful the listener, the more likely he is to judge or dismiss advice from others.”

Tips for becoming a better listener include summarizing or rephrasing what is said, making eye contact, changing postures, and being ready to ask questions.  But perhaps more than anything, listening requires practice.  Being open and ready to receive doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

And why not teach listening as a skill in school, asks Julian Treasure.  We spend a lot of resources teaching speaking and writing, so why not also offer training in active listening as a skill?