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The Space between our Ears : Listening as an acquired art!

My journey with communication started early on with exposure to complex people-based projects in School. I always wondered when I saw people talking at each other – rather than talking to each other, as to what was wrong. It was everywhere, at home, at public places, while speaking with vendors, everyone seemed to be self […]

My journey with communication started early on with exposure to complex people-based projects in School. I always wondered when I saw people talking at each other – rather than talking to each other, as to what was wrong.

It was everywhere, at home, at public places, while speaking with vendors, everyone seemed to be self absorbed in either a multitude of thought streams or reacting before they could fathom the communication desired by the other party.

Now of course, I do understand and accept that context is a big player in receiving the right messaging while communicating; It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.

However, while teachers and parents alike urge you to listen and absorb, no one really teaches you how to.

A case in point basis medical research across respondents globally reveals that our brain thinks faster than we communicate with speech, then of course there are language considerations and we come back to contextual placement of communication. But to dwell deeper into this dilemma and do my bit in propagating/evangelising the importance of listening, I joined the Podcast Industry.

Frankly, I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 70-80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”

Business is tied together by its systems of communication. 

This communication, depends more on the spoken word than it does on the written word; and the effectiveness of the spoken word hinges not so much on how people talk as on how they listen.

More often that not people do not understand how to engage the senses, and as we grow up and experience the complexities of life, we forget to focus on the beauty of those interlinkages and the silos, both offering different purposes in balance.

Factually, an average human being only absorbs 50% of what is heard, and if you add to that another 30% drop in contextual understanding owed to distractions, brain speed, or the need to respond as the words are being heard over the next 8 hours (most people can absorb short term)- you are left with little information that was originally meant to be absorbed.

Lets understand the possible deficits :-

Gap in Classroom Training 

Listening training in school and at home is mostly restricted to admonitions like “Pay attention!” “Now get this!” “Open your ears!” “Listen!”

There is absolutely no correlation with IQ (maybe EQ as we will discuss further in this article) as far as absorption capacity goes, however it can be observed that while our reading capability improves, our listening ability degenerates with no focus on building that skill.

I decided to embark on an experimentation for myself while at an Ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala for 2 months in Silos back in 2017, where the first step was to be able to respond to or absorb nature sounds, and then understand and get comfortable with the noise of my own brain. (Try this, the current lockdown spent alone amidst the 4 walls of my house was another lesson in being quiet and to develop listening again, given nature was at its best since :)).

The second was – I hung a Placard on my neck saying ” I am observing silence” please do not engage in conversation. Despite the loud and clear messaging to anyone who walked passed me or approached me for those 2 months, they still engaged. My response would usually be a polite namaste with a smile, and I had to consciously look the other way unless a discourse happened.

Actually, listening concentration is more difficult than absorbing video as an example.When we listen, the concentration must be achieved despite a factor that is peculiar to aural communication, one of which few people are aware.

The human brain is made up of more than 13 billion cells and operates in such a complicated but efficient manner that it makes the great, modern digital computers seem slow-witted. Most psychologists believe that the basic medium of thought is language. Certainly, words play a large part in our thinking processes and the words race through our brains at speeds much higher than 125 words per minute. This means that, when we listen, we ask our brain to receive words at an extremely slow pace compared with its capabilities.

In the act of listening, the differential between thinking and speaking rates means that our brain works with hundreds of words in addition to those that we hear, assembling thoughts other than those spoken to us. To phrase it another way, we can listen and still have some spare time for thinking.

The use, or misuse, of this spare thinking time holds the answer to how well a person can concentrate on the spoken word.

A, the boss, is talking to B, the subordinate, about a new program that the firm is planning to launch. B is a poor listener. In this instance, he tries to listen well, but he has difficulty concentrating on what A has to say.

A starts talking and B launches into the listening process, grasping every word and phrase that comes into his ears. But right away B finds that, because of A’s slow rate of speech, he has time to think of things other than the spoken line of thought.

Subconsciously, B decides to sandwich a few thoughts of his own into the aural ones that are arriving so slowly. So B quickly dashes out onto a mental sidetrack and thinks something like this: “Oh, yes, before I leave I want to tell A about the big success of the meeting I called yesterday.” Then B comes back to A’s spoken line of thought and listens for a few more words.

When B returns to the act of listening, A is moving along ahead of him. At this point, it becomes harder for B to understand A, simply because B has missed part of the oral message. The private mental sidetracks become more inviting than ever, and B slides off onto several of them. Slowly he misses more and more of what A has to say.

When A is through talking, it is safe to say that B will have received and understood less than half of what was spoken to him.

What can we do to solve the deficits:-

A major task in helping people to listen better is teaching them to use their spare thinking time efficiently as they listen. What does “efficiently” mean?

(1) The listener thinks ahead of the talker, trying to anticipate what the oral discourse is leading to and what conclusions will be drawn from the words spoken at the moment.

(2) The listener weighs the evidence used by the talker to support the points that he makes. “Is this evidence valid?” the listener asks himself. “Is it the complete evidence?”

(3) Periodically the listener reviews and mentally summarizes the points of the talk completed thus far.

(4) Throughout the talk, the listener “listens between the lines” in search of meaning that is not necessarily put into spoken words. He pays attention to nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice) to see if it adds meaning to the spoken words. He asks himself, “Is the talker purposely skirting some area of the subject? Why is he doing so?”

The Importance / Bias of Emotional Filters

In different degrees and in many different ways, the listening ability is affected by our emotions.2 Figuratively we reach up and mentally turn off what we do not want to hear.

Or, on the other hand, when someone says what we especially want to hear, we open our ears wide, accepting everything—truths, half-truths, or fiction. We might say, then, that our emotions act as aural filters. At times they in effect cause deafness, and at other times they make listening altogether too easy.

If we hear something that opposes our most deeply rooted prejudices, notions, convictions, mores, or complexes, our brains may become over-stimulated, and not in a direction that leads to good listening. We mentally plan a rebuttal to what we hear, formulate a question designed to embarrass the talker, or perhaps simply turn to thoughts that support our own feelings on the subject at hand.

Benefits in Business

The improvement of listening, or simply an effort to make people aware of how important their listening ability is, can be of great value in today’s business.

When people in business fail to hear and understand each other, the results can be costly. Such things as numbers, dates, places, and names are especially easy to confuse, but the most straightforward agreements are often subjects of listening errors, too.

When these mistakes are compounded, the resulting cost and inefficiency in business communication become serious. Building awareness of the importance of listening among employees can eliminate a large percentage of this type of aural error.

Listening for Ideas

For some reason, many people take great pride in being able to say that above all they try to “get the facts” when they listen.

It seems logical enough to do so. If a person gets all the facts, he should certainly understand what is said to him.

Therefore, many people try to memorize every single fact that is spoken. With such practice at “getting the facts,” the listener, we can safely assume, will develop a serious bad listening habit.

Memorizing facts is, to begin with, a virtual impossibility for most people in the listening situation. As one fact is being memorized, the whole, or part, of the next fact is almost certain to be missed.

When people talk, they want listeners to understand their ideas. The facts are useful chiefly for constructing the ideas. Grasping an idea will help the listener to remember the supporting facts more effectively than does the person who goes after facts alone. This listening skill is one which definitely can be taught, one in which people can build experience leading toward improved aural communication.

Listening to Sell

High-pressure salesmanship is rapidly giving way to low-pressure methods in the marketing of industrial and consumer goods. Today’s successful salesman is likely to center his attention on the customer-problem approach of selling.

To put this approach to work, the skill of listening becomes an essential tool for the salesman, while his vocal agility becomes less important. How a salesman talks turns out to be relatively unimportant because what he says, when it is guided by his listening, gives power to the spoken word. In other words, the salesman’s listening becomes an on-the-spot form of customer research that can immediately be put to work in formulating any sales talk.

Here is what I do to ensure I do not miss information:-

  • I make notes, tagged separately for each client conversation by day, owed to my PA training at a random gig in London -something that still helps me document facts as they were spoken.
  • Ask questions: Always reconfirm if you are not sure of something you think you heard, repeat it verbatim and pause for confirmation from the deliverer.
  • Record conference calls – utilise technology 🙂

For now, keep it simple.

Write to me @tanyasingh711@gmail.com / tanya.singh@hindustantimes.com in case you wish to engage in written discourse around the “Listening Space”

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