The University Record, March 18, 1998

Being a good listener is hard work

By Jane R. Elgass

Only 25 percent of the individuals listening to a speaker will be able to grasp the central idea. Seventy-five percent are left in the dark.

That rather alarming fact was one of many presented by Jane Pettit at a session on "Improving Your Listening Skills" that was part of the Women of Color Task Force Career Conference on March 6.

Pettit, a staff development associate for Human Resource Development, also noted that while we talk at a rate of about 125 words per minute, we can think and listen at about four times that rate.

What does it take to become a good listener? A lot of hard work.

"Listening is hard work," Pettit explained, "characterized by faster heart action, quicker circulation and a rise in body temperature. An over-relaxed listener," she noted, "is only appearing to be tuned in. He or she actually is on the verge of sleep. You have to make a conscious effort to listen to a speaker.

"Listening is not easy. You're constantly trying to stay focused."

As a speaker, there are several things you can look for to determine if your message is being received. On the flip side, these are good characteristics to have when you are the listener. A good listener looks at the speaker, nods occasionally in understanding, maintains eye contact with the speaker, writes down information, presents "open body language," changes facial expressions appropriate to the content of the speaker's message, re-phrases the speaker's words, asks questions to obtain more information.

Listeners who pose challenges for speakers are those who jump to conclusions, finish sentences before the speaker does, think or plan while another is speaking or close their mind to what is being said.

Pettit said that one of the most important things speakers can do to make listening easier is to give an "orientation" to the topic. For instance, your workplace audience may be familiar with the acronyms you use. When you're away from "home," it might help to have a handout on the acronyms.

There are several characteristics that are common to poor listeners:

  • Giving advice. "Many people are just asking you to listen," Pettit said. "They'll ask you for advice if they want it."
  • Being defensive or argumentative, closing your mind to another view.
  • Interrupting. "Bite your tongue, take a deep breath and write down what you want to say so you don't lose it."
  • "One-upmanship." The listener jumps in with a personal tale of woe instead of responding to the speaker and maybe asking questions.
  • Invalidating feelings.

    These characteristics can be eliminated by several strategies. As a listener, chose the one that's appropriate to the situation.

  • Reflect the content.
  • Reflect the feelings.
  • Ask for clarification. Pettit noted that in all fairness to someone who wants to talk with you, you must decide if you want to listen. This may mean that you initially "break rapport" with the speaker, asking the person to call you later. This approach allows you to listen to the speaker when you have the time to devote to doing so. "You don't always have to listen just because someone is talking," she said.

    Some common bad listening habits

  • Calling the subject uninteresting.
  • Criticizing the delivery style of the speaker.
  • Getting overstimulated by the subject matter.
  • Listening only for facts.
  • Attempting to put everything in outline form.
  • Overrelaxing, giving the appearance of paying attention.
  • Tolerating distractions.
  • Ignoring difficult material.
  • Reacting to emotional words.
  • Wasting thought power.