Despite the constant emphasis on communication, today’s levels of understanding are worse than ever

Listening properly takes time and attention. It means that you have to concentrate on what the other person is saying, not on what is going on inside your head. Sadly, in our rushed, frantic world, with its obsession with quick gains, less and less real listening takes place. Yet to listen to another person fully and patiently is probably one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

You’re buying a car. The sales person asks you what kind of vehicle you have in mind. You start to explain—but how far do you get before he or she says: I’ve got just what you need?” The quicker that point is reached, the less actual listening has taken place. That salesperson isn’t listening to what you want to say. He or she is listening only for what can be used to make a quick sale.

Most people can hear—and more or less understand—words as fast as they’re spoken. They can even make superficial sense of what is being said. What they can’t do at high speed is listen—in the sense of understanding fully what the other person is wanting to communicate and what it means to them.

That takes time. Time to make sure you heard everything and understood their real meaning. Time to weigh all the facts and reach a reasoned conclusion. Time to hear what is not being said and take that into account too. Time to note the emotions behind the words and feel enough empathy with the other person to get on their wavelength. Time to consider the implications of their words and work out a comprehensive response.

When people listen and respond quickly, they can only operate on first impressions and gut responses.

Listening just for for my needs, not for what you want to say

The sales person who talks over your explanation with a pre-digested list of product features is only doing what they’ve been taught: responding to the first buying signals they think they’ve detected with an immediate attempt to close the sale. Their objective is to sell as much as possible as quickly as possible, not to understand what each customer might really want to explain.

In our hurly-burly world, speed has become a god. There’s no time for something as slow as proper listening. All there’s time for is reaching a quick decision on which pigeon-hole to push each event into, so you can get on to the response—the action part—as quickly as possible.

The art of listening

Real communicators differ from the far more common, fake kind because they start from a different set of assumptions

  • They assume that they have no idea what the other person is going to say until after they’ve finished saying it in full.
  • They don’t believe they’ve understood what has been said until they’ve verified it carefully.
  • They assume that much of the real meaning is not in the words. It comes in the tone of voice, the stops and starts, the obvious signs of emotion, the body language. They give their full attention so as not to miss any of these.
  • They have learned that they don’t usually know what the other person really means by what they said. It has to be discovered, if only because many people find it hard to express their thoughts fully without the patience and help of the person listening.
  • They believe that everyone deserves a response based on careful, thorough thought—and that instant answers are an insult when the other person is taking the time and the trouble to try to explain.
  • They know that understanding owes more to empathy than hearing—and that seeing through another’s eyes means no longer focusing on your own concerns, but on theirs.

People like this are, of course, far more successful communicators than those whose mouths typically work twice as hard (and fast) as their ears.

When they respond, what they say is exactly what is needed. When they ask questions, every one is relevant and insightful. When they offer a comment or an idea, it will be right on the button.

They may be slower, but they are orders of magnitude are more effective.

Only fools value speed over effectiveness; and only arrogant fools assume that they know what others are saying without showing them the courtesy of listening with care and close attention.

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