Sections Supplements

Listen – and Learn

Speaking is Only Part of the Communication Process
The holidays are fast approaching, and with that comes the thoughtwrenching task of coming up with gift ideas for family, friends, and colleagues, etc. Are you looking for the perfect gift for those hard-to-shop for individuals on your list? Something that everyone wants but rarely receives? Better yet, something that won’t involve sitting in traffic, battling for parking or endless check-out lines because it can’t be purchased at any store or from inside the mall? In fact, this gift won’t cost you a thing – other than time.

What is the gift in question? Listening! Sounds simple but in our fast paced, action-oriented world, listening has become a lost art. Listening is the foundation for effective communication. However, most of us are compelled to speak in order to feel valuable to the conversation. Speaking is usually the first word that comes to mind when people think about communication.

But speaking is only part of the process; listening is the other part and is even more important. When no one is listening, the words we speak are meaningless.

According to a James Madison University employer survey, 78% of the respondents indicated that listening effectively is very important to the success of their organization. Yet, less than 2% of the workforce is trained in listening skills.

Think about the last time someone tried to talk to you. While you may have heard the words they said, did you really listen to them? There is a big difference between “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is physiological.

Our ears register sounds of all kinds – the drone of an airplane flying overhead, music in the background, children’s laughter, the words someone speaks. It’s what we do when we hear the words that make the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is passive; it just happens. Listening is active and requires energy.

Listening engages the mind and involves skill, patience and concentration. When you are truly listening, you must pay attention, interpret the words, understand or clarify them, and, if appropriate, respond to them.

While our intentions may be good, many of us encounter obstacles that interrupt the listening process. Noise, such as a jackhammer outside the office window or traffic noise when on a cell phone, may interfere with the ability to effectively listen.

Because our lives are so fast paced and time deficient, many of us have become multi-taskers. This diminishes effective listening. When we are trying to do too many things at once, we can become easily distracted.

Along with distractions are interruptions, such as the telephone, E-mail, people coming in and out of the room, etc.

Our assumptions or judgments also get in the way. Can you recall a time when you assumed you knew what someone was going to say, only to find out that you were wrong? Sometimes people fail to listen because they are too busy formulating their response even before the person is through speaking. Impatience is a serious obstacle to listening and can be caused by such things as style, status, gender or cultural differences, lack of interest, or even distrust.

Since many obstacles can hinder our ability to listen effectively, becoming aware of what gets in our way is a great start.

Improvement begins by assessing your listening behaviors. To improve your listening skills, have a reason to listen. Without a good reason for listening your mind might wander and you might become impatient. Do you need the information or have a general interest in the topic? Do you want to know the speaker’s ideas and opinions or does the speaker need an opportunity or chance to express themselves on an issue?

Participate in the process. Put all your energy into listening. Focus on the speaker; make them the only game. Listen not only to the words they say but to what’s not being said. What does their body language say? Are they saying one thing while their body language reveals another? How about the tone of their voice? Become curious; look for clues and ask questions. Questions demonstrate your interest in what the other person is saying (or not saying) and can help the speaker to be more specific so you can understand better. Make them right.

Everyone is entitled to their feelings and opinions. While we don’t have to agree with everything being said, we can respect, acknowledge and appreciate them. Let the speaker have their own style, be patient and don’t interrupt. Give them the space to speak. W.A.I.T. before you respond.

W.A.I.T. is an acronym for Why Am I Talking? This can help you to regain focus on the speaker versus your response. Make it easy. Help the person relax by doing so yourself. This will help the individual feel comfortable in opening up and communicating freely.

Many times we feel that when people come to us with a problem or challenge, we need to help them solve it by providing answers and solutions. But oftentimes what they value most is the opportunity to talk it through and be heard. By effectively listening, you allow people’s busy, hectic worlds to slow down providing them with the time and space to quietly think things through to solve the situation or challenge on their own. Everyone benefits from good listening.

A good listener can help individuals gain clarity and focus and relieve stress. All of this can improve decision-making and get people into effective action.

Listeners create enhanced communication, strengthen relationships, and reduce conflict. Listening – the rare gift most have been WAITing for this holiday!

Lynn Turner is an executive coach and owner of Ironweed Business Alliance, a coaching and consulting firm specializing in leadership development, team building and work/life balance strategies. She is also the host and producer of a local radio talk show/Web site Business Link Radio ( ;[email protected]; (413) 283-7091.

For more on Effective Listening and Effective Communication:

Turner will be facilitating an American Management Assoc. University Program on Effective Communication Skills at Holyoke Community College. For more information about this five-night course starting Nov. 30 call (413) 552-2122 or