Monday 21 February 2011

Are you listening?

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, "His Master's Voice", The Original RCA Music Puppy Dog Logo Symbol for Advertising
Listening is a skill we are in danger of losing, and its a skill that's crucial to knowledge transfer.

I read recently that in a conversation, our listening effectiveness is on average about 40%. In an argument, it falls to 10%, and 90% of what the other person says is lost, because we are too busy marshaling our own thoughts to listen properly.

Poor listening is often fed by poor speaking, and everyone knows how dire it can be listening to someone drone on and on, as the audience falls asleep one by one. So I have sympathy with those who find it hard to listen. Also very often people try to transfer knowledge through marathon bouts of one-way traffic - one-hour lectures that don't hold the attention, death by PowerPoint, sermons we sleep through. There is a lot of poorly-thought-through, poorly-structured speaking going on; trying to do in a 1-hour speech what 10 minutes of interactive dialogue would achieve more easily.

But no matter how brief the conversation - one hour or one minute - there are two roles here; the speaker and the listener, and the role of the listener is an active one, not a passive one. The listener's role consists of focusing attention, and of attempting to understand. Not to evaluate, not to think of why they are wrong in what they say, but actively to pay attention, and activeiyl to seek understanding. Seeking to understand doesn't mean that you agree, but it means that you stand a better chance of learning rather than dismissing.

I tell you what though - active listening is very hard! Most of the time our attention wanders, much of the time we are thinking of something else, and crucial knowledge may fail to catch our attention. I think that's one reason why I am not a fan of tweeting during presentations - it destroys active listening for the tweeter.

One organisation I am working with is looking at changing their culture to a learning culture, and one of their initiatives is to teach active listening. And I think that's a great initiative.

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