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Listen Up!


It may seem easy, but good listening requires effort and practice. Follow these tips and learn to listen like a pro.

This article is based on a presentation at the 2016 Emerson Global Users Exchange that was recognized with the Best-in-Conference award.

Observe any conversation, and you might think that the person speaking is the one in control of the exchange. After all, the speaker is the person stating information, sharing opinions, issuing orders, and generally making noise. A speaker, however, can talk to four walls in an empty room or to the stars in the night sky, but without a listener, it is not a conversation.

Listeners control conversations, and good listening is vital for efficient and effective communication. However, being a good listener can be challenging.

Why is listening so difficult?

Hearing is not listening. Hearing is a purely physical act: the speaker’s vocal chords make vibrations, which are altered by the tongue, teeth, and lips; barring disability or interruptions, the vibrations travel through the air into the listener’s ear canal, where they are converted into nerve impulses in the brain. Hearing is a prerequisite for listening, but it is a passive action. Listening is an additional layer on top of hearing that requires active engagement and critical thought.

Lag time. Words move from the speaker’s mouth to the listener’s ears, and then are processed by the listener’s brain. There are lags between the mouth’s ability to enunciate words, the ears’ ability to receive sound, and the brain’s ability to process information. Although the entire process can feel almost instantaneous, each of these actions takes time.

The brain works considerably faster than the mouth and ears. While a speaker pronounces words, the listener’s brain waits to process the sound. During that time, thoughts may wander to extraneous ruminations, such as “What’s for dinner tonight?” “Is that spinach between her teeth?” “I hope the commute home won’t be bad tonight.” It takes effort to reel in our brains and maintain focus throughout a conversation.

Filters. Because the brain works so fast, it has time to place its own filters between the speaker’s message and intent and the listener’s conclusions. Filters may be based on the listener’s culture, language or linguistic patterns, expectations, or biases. For example, the listener may interpret the way that a speaker uses certain words or references as nonsensical or offensive. This fast, usually subconscious perspective may cause the listener to interpret the message and form opinions, answers, and assumptions even before the speaker has finished making a point.

Filters are often the cause of miscommunication because they cause the listener to misinterpret the intent or meaning of the speaker’s words or the speaker to misinterpret the listener’s reaction. For example, a listener may disagree with what a speaker is saying, yet not want to offend, and so may nod and smile politely while the speaker talks. This may give the speaker the impression that the listener understands and perhaps even agrees. In other cases, listeners may interrupt to voice their own thoughts or opinions, which can derail the speaker’s original line of thought or introduce unnecessary complexity.

Lack of education and training. Educators rightfully believe that the ability to convey a message clearly is an important skill for success. Public speaking and communications courses are often offered at high schools and universities.

Courses on listening are far less common. However, in the past few years, some universities have started to require freshmen students to take a class on effective note taking to prepare...

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