Developing Listening Skills

By Michael Rega

Publication: American Salesman
Date: May 1, 2001

A wise man once explained “we never learn anything with our mouth open. We can only learn by reading, by listening, by observing and by doing.”

If you are like most adults, you have not had training in listening since elementary school. Along the way, you may have picked up some bad habits.

The first step is to review some common mistakes that prevent you from effectively using what you hear. Many studies have been conducted on listening, and it is a well accepted fact that people absorb only about one-tenth to one fourth of what they hear. To many of you, that may come as a shock. You tend to assume that when you speak with people, they remember and comprehend what you say. Just as the prospect may have difficulty comprehending what you say, you also will need to concentrate on the skill of listening to achieve your objectives.

I recommend a five-step process for listening effectively. However, your first step must be to examine common listening mistakes and blocks to listening.

Common Listening Mistakes

1. It does not take extra effort.

One of the reasons; for poor listener skills is your natural feeling that it should be effortless. Hearing does not take effort. Listening, however, takes a great deal of concentration and effort.

2. Tuning out the subject.

Each of you is preoccupied with what you will say next to the prospect. You are probably worried you will forget your lines. You may also say, “Oh, I’ve heard all this before, etc.”

3. Being distracted by the sound of a person’s voice or their delivery manner.

The good listener can ignore or penetrate this barrier to get the message being sent by the prospect. Again, it takes effort and concentration.

4. Letting emotions get in the way.

This is one of the toughest traps of all since most people tend to react emotionally rather than logically. You will have come a long way when you can suspend your emotional reactions until your logical side has listened to and absorbed the speaker’s message. It takes training and lots of practice.

5. Doing two things at once.

It is not easy, but most of you do it. While someone is speaking, you will be preoccupied with having lunch, thinking about your children at home, or what you will say next. A major part of your success in listening will come from accepting that you can only do one thing at a time successfully.

You fall into the trap of trying to do more than one thing at a time because physically people have the ability to listen at a rate of 500 to 1,000 words per minute. However, the comfortable, average rate of speech is only 150 words per minute. This difference between your ability to comprehend and the rate of speech creates a problem for the listener.

6. Concentrating on facts rather than ideas, themes or the general meaning of what is said.

Facts are important but ideas are usually more significant. If you grasp a fact but concentrate so hard on getting it you lose the main idea, you have gained little and lost a great deal.

For example: “The number of customers for our products has declined by over 50 percent in just four years, from 875 to 430, but the average dollar volume purchased by each customer has more than made up for the loss in business.”

The “get-the-facts” listener may concentrate so hard on the numbers in the first half of the sentence, trying to commit them to memory, that he misses the second thought. As a rule, listen for the ideas behind the facts rather than for the facts alone.

Usually, if you grasp the overall meaning you will remember most of the important details; but a fact isolated from its context can easily be forgotten or distorted.

7. Forgetting to test for understanding.

It is easy to believe what you hear is what the speaker moans. This is frequently untrue. Be sure to check to see if what you understand is the essence of the message being communicated.

Guides to Effective Listening

I recommend a five-step approach to effective listening. The first three are easy. You do them well every day. The last two are the steps you frequently forget. An easy way to remember each of the five steps is to remember the word CLEAR.

The five steps permit you to take complete responsibility for the communication process. It is important that you and you alone take full responsibility for the communication process.

C — Commit to listening. It sounds simple, but frequently communication does not take place because you do not commit yourself to listening. You are preoccupied with other concerns.

L — Listen. Listen to your speaker carefully. Listen not only to the words being used but also to the tone of voice. A key to understanding the prospect’s attitude is found in his or her manner of speaking.

E — Evaluate what is said. Evaluate and identify the ideas presented by your prospect. Try to identify the “meanings” of their words.

A — Acknowledge and paraphrase. This step is frequently left out. Without it, you risk short-circuiting the communication process. After you listen you must put into your own words a paraphrase of what you heard the speaker say. Until you have communicated what you heard do not assume you really understand what the speaker wishes to communicate. Tell the speaker, paraphrased in your own words, what you heard them say.

R — Respond and Test. Request that the speaker confirm you have heard correctly and your paraphrase was an accurate assessment of their “meanings.” However laborious or artificial it seems you will quickly impress your prospect that what they say is important to you. Such a message will permit, and even encourage, the speaker to hear what your message is.

Clearly the benefit of good listening is it encourages effective listening on the part of the prospect. Listen by using all five steps. Communication may not take place until the entire cycle (CLEAR) has taken place. Following through on all five steps allows you to take full responsibility for the communication process.