Listening to Understand

Listening is a difficult learning skill to develop and there are studies that prove that we are getting worse at listening as time goes on. According to a 2006 study by Dr. Ralph Nichols revealed that we spend 40% of our day listening, but we only retain 25% of what we hear. By 2011, it was revealed that we spend 60% of our day listening but do not retain much more information as previously stated.

Another thing to note is that there is a difference between what we hear and what we understand. This lag-time is time spent where we listen to ourselves and not the other individual, therefore, our comprehension plummets.

The number one key to improving your listening and comprehension is concentration. This is about allowing yourself to listen better by becoming more passive. This can be done by completing the following:

1. Get rid of outside distractions.

Put everything down and shut out everything. Breathe slowly and deeply. Physically relax and get comfortable.

2. Open your mind.

Don't judge, only listen.

3. Listen for the big picture, not the details.

Think of it this way. You walk midway into a lecture. You may immediately understand the words and sentences, but you will not immediately understand the overall purpose. Until you get the overall point, it’s easy to misconstrue the facts or put them into the wrong context.

4. Note – but don’t judge – non-verbal communications.

How are they sitting? How’s the eye contact? Is their speech fast or slow, smooth or broken? What aren’t they saying? Also, be aware of the vividness effect – that you become more drawn to sensational, vivid or memorable aspects of the speech instead of the substance of the speech. Again, if needed, repeat their words in your head to give you focus.

5. Do not jump to conclusions or interrupt.

Until they’ve finished speaking, don’t talk. That said, you can gently ask the speaker to repeat themselves, but always do that between their sentences.

Once they finished their point-of-view, you’ll notice that you respond less quickly. You’ll need a minute or two to compose a considered response in your head. This may be both a bonus and a shock to the speaker. Few people expect the listener to be contemplative, so they might be genuinely surprised they were actually heard and understood. This may also change their initial perception of the conversation to come. At the same time, they might be distrustful, so you may also need to tell them, genuinely of course, that you’re thinking about what they said.

A common objection to this style of listening is that reflecting slows down the conversation and gets in the way of decision making. Maybe. Reflecting definitely takes more time, but by listening to understand accurately means you can save time too, because you won’t have errors in communications.

6. Paraphrase the big picture, then add in details.

This allows you to demonstrate you have listened. Or, if you’ve missed a point, you can demonstrate you want to hear their points more exactly. Begin with the overall point, then add the details. Another trick: speak from their point-of-view, not yours. Don’t add emotion.

7. Challenge yourself first.

It’s very possible you will disagree with the speaker. If so, ask yourself, "Why might this speaker’s message be true?" Under what circumstance might this be true? Those questions force you to put yourself in the shoes of the person in front of you, and it becomes much more difficult to argue with this person. Remember, you can understand a person, but not agree with them.

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