Let’s hear it for sound listening skills

3 min read
First Published: 
Jul 2006

Of the principal elements in communication – reading, speaking, writing and listening – listening is learned first, is used most through life, and is taught least through all the years of schooling. In his book How to Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer Adler says that it is utterly amazing how people generally assume that the ability to listen well is a natural gift requiring no training. “Deficiencies in listening and the ensuing failures in communication,” says Adler, “are a major source of wasted time, ineffective operation, and miscarried plans and decisions.”

Among the reasons that people either don’t listen or don’t really catch what’s being said are:

  • impatience, a low threshold for boredom, and irritation when speakers don’t provide a “lead paragraph” – a clear focal point – or when they engage in the sort of self-indulgent long-windedness that Benjamin Disraeli described as “tracing the steam engine always back to the kettle”;
  • paying more attention to a speaker’s mannerisms while allowing one’s mind to wander;
  • overreacting to certain words or phrases that arouse adverse emotional responses; or
  • just daydreaming.

Listening, Adler believes, requires penetrating through the words to the thoughts that lie behind them. It calls for sifting what’s important from what isn’t; it requires perceiving as early as possible the focus of what is being said.

It could be argued that if people spoke more logically, grammatically and colourfully than most of us do, listening would be easier. But that’s rather like saying that astronomy would be more rewarding if there were never any clouds.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Lona O’Connor lists three types of listening:

  • Supportive: making speakers comfortable enough to say what’s on their mind
  • Active: asking questions and advancing the conversation
  • Analytical: figuring out what the information means and what to do about it.

Can you improve your listening skills? Your future could depend on it. This is especially true for healthcare professionals who, by turning an intentionally deaf ear to what’s being said or by failing to detect nuance, may place their careers in jeopardy. It’s estimated that more than half of all malpractice litigation has its origins in garbled communication and misunderstanding.

Let’s hear it!

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David Woods
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