One of the most important skills required of anyone who wants to be an excellent communicator is that of being able to listen effectively. However, there are many people who seem to lack this powerful and vital resource which results in a less than perfect communication. It is interesting to note that our studies over the last 10 years indicate that many people believe that they are good or great listeners – until they do our test! While there are many factors that can influence the efficacy of listening in this brief article I intend to focus on the most important eight principal problems. We believe that the elements are all of equal importance.
Definition: Listen. (intentional)
To make an effort to hear something with thoughtful attention; To pay attention; to heed; to take notice of and act on what someone says.
Whenever we talk with someone else about an experience, usually our verbal description will delete a great deal of that experience – often because we assume shared knowledge &/or experiences about the topic. Our words take a very complex & richly detailed experience combining visual, auditive & kinesthetic elements and summarize it so what is left is a brief outline of the total experience. Whenever we are involved in conversation, we gather information from the other parties involved. However, we also draw on our own experience in making an internal representation of what the other person says in order to:
a) understand it.
b) know what we lack and need to know in order to complete our internal representation.
Frequently, there is a tendency for both us and the other parties involved to use internal filters that delete, distort or generalize the information being given and it is these elements which can adversely affect the efficacy of our listening skills. Some of the most common problems that can occur from these filters are:
Problem 1: The Law of Closure.
When we are involved in oral / aural communication, it is impossible for us to give /receive all of the information required so as senders / receptors, we have a tendency to make certain assumptions about what is being said based on the context, the content, the other participant(s), etc. When certain elements are missing, we instinctively tend to fill-in the “blanks” with information drawn from our own experiences so that instead of having partial information, we need to feel that we have “all” of the information – even if it is wrong! – This, in turn, can lead us to draw inappropriate or incorrect conclusions about the message being delivered and respond in an erroneous manner.
Problem 2: Law of Field.
In order to listen effectively, we need to be able to focus on the person we are communicating with and concentrate on what they are saying (and NOT saying) and any distractions such as the movement of people in the same area, ringing telephones, etc., are things that may prevent us from effectively completing this task. This is noticeable during presentations & meetings when someone stands up during a presentation and leaves the room – the audience gets distracted, stop listening to the presenter and focus on the person moving thereby possibly missing an important part of the message from the presenter. The same result occurs when a mobile phone rings or a person starts using a tablet or laptop. People usually focus on the moving object instead of the static one!
Problem 3: Prejudice
A common problem that occurs in listening is that of prejudice; either conscious or subconscious. This might be related directly to the other participant(s) based on our previous experiences with them either directly or indirectly or based on the topic being discussed, the environment, our own emotional or physical state or other factors. A frequent example of this can be found in the treatment of politicians by people opposed to their views. We need to be aware of our prejudices and learn how to separate the person we are communicating with from the topic of conversation (separate the person from the problem!).
Problem 4: Selective Listening
Unfortunately, we often enter into a conversation with either our own “game-plan” about how we are going to control the conversation in terms of topic(s), structure, duration, etc., or preconceived ideas of how it will develop instead of actually listening to our interlocutor. This means that we tend to listen for what we want to hear instead of what is actually said and filter out anything which does not fit into our plan of the communication or our own ideas.
Problem 5: Time
To listen effectively, we need to be able to dedicate time to the task. Any conversation where one or both parties are worried about the time available is bound to suffer from listening problems. In a business context, we have to ensure that we have programmed sufficient time to be able to communicate effective with the other parties involved.
Problem 6: Logical structure / Congruence
Most people generally have a tendency to expect, and look for, logical sequences or structure in their communication. In an aural / oral conversation, if we believe that “A” is true, and “B” is also true, then “C” and every following element must logically fit with the information preceding & following it. If this does not occur it conflicts with our expectations and frequently creates incongruence which leads to a block in the communication.
Problem 7: Presuppositions (Going beyond)
Some people have a tendency to extrapolate or go beyond what they hear while others tend to remain constrained by the actual “data” that they have obtained during the conversation. It is important that we are aware both of our own tendencies to do this as well as that of our interlocutor(s) and ensure that if we have a tendency to go beyond the information given that we communicate this to our interlocutor(s) and check if they are in agreement.
Problem 8: Questions
In order to resolve many of the problems indicated above, we need to be able to elegantly ask questions to clarify the unclear elements in the communication. While the traditional “open” and “closed” questions serve some purpose, an excellent model to follow is that of the “Meta Model” which is a set of questions that allow you to gather information that clarifies someone’s experience, in order to get a fuller representation of that experience.
Effective listening can only occur when there is an understanding about how experiences are stored in memory and communicated to other people. The concept that “What goes in is what comes out” is incorrect and to be an effective and elegant communicator, it is necessary to know how to listen properly and ask the right questions to uncover the elements dealt with by the filters of deletion, distortion and generalization.
© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain.