Are You Really Listening?

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Most of the successful people I have known are the ones who do more listening than talking.
Bernard Baruch

A woman actively listening to another
Active listening is necessary in relationships

Active Listening

We can all recall situations where we have utterly failed to listen to what someone else is saying. For various reasons, we are simply not taking anything in. How many times have you been introduced to a person by name only not to know their name thirty seconds later?

The reason this happens is that you have failed to ‘actively’ listen. By italicizing the word “actively,” it might suggest that actively listening is different from plain old listening. In truth, there are only two states when we are communicating with another person: actively listening and hearing.

Active listening is the art of listening for meaning. For us to gain sense from the words of another person, we need to be listening carefully. Meaning is not necessarily assured even when we are actively listening, but when we don’t understand, we can ask questions to gain enlightenment.

Active listening must become a habit because it is the foundation of effective communication. Imagine a troop commander not listening to his orders and attacking the wrong target. A failure to actively listen can undoubtedly have dire consequences.

Many People Fail at Listening

Many people give the appearance of listening but fail to really hear what is being said to them. They assume that listening is such a basic sense that it will happen automatically, but this is not the case. Or it might be that they are so used to making all the outward gestures of listening that they are convinced it is really happening. It is not difficult to pick up the tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, all of which indicate the gist of what is stated. All it then takes is to hear a few keywords. It becomes very easy to think you have understood everything you’ve been told and give the convincing impression that this is so by returning appropriate tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.

Active listening requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they are being told. Without this, communication is nothing but a façade, which may suffice when you pass the time of day talking to a neighbor in the street, but it is wholly inadequate in any business environment. As businesses depend on human interaction to succeed, the quality of that interaction must be of the highest caliber, and exchange means communication.

There are many reasons why people fail to listen properly. They may be distracted by an activity while listening, by other thoughts in their head they deem to be more important, or they might be thinking about what they are going to say next, which is a common flaw in communication between parties whose opinions differ.

Active listening focuses attention on the speaker. It involves the listener quashing their own needs for a while. It requires concentration and a genuine willingness to hear what is being said.

Why It Is So Important to Actively Listen

Where there is an absence of active listening, there is poor communication, and where there is poor communication, opportunities are missed, and problems are created or perpetuated.

Active listening encourages people to open up, reduces misunderstandings, helps resolve problems and conflicts, and builds trust.

Research has shown that most people spend up to 90% of their waking time engaged in some form of communication, be that reading, writing, speaking, or listening. However, over half of our communication time is taken up with listening – or what passes for listening. Anyone in a managerial position is likely to devote as much as 70% of their communication time to listening. The higher up the chain of command you go, the more demand is placed on the individual to listen to other people.

Studies also reveal that we properly hear only around 25% to 50% of what is said to us. Out of a 10-minute conversation, you may be getting only 2½ to 5 minutes of useful information. While that may be sufficient to grasp the general thrust of the conversation, it still leaves 50% to 75% that has passed you by. The potential for important details to be missed is therefore significant.

In a way, the importance of listening hardly needs explaining. No one can live in this modern world and not understand the need to communicate with other people. It is not the importance of listening that requires stressing; it is the misconception that listening is easy and happens by default. From the most personal, all human relationships through those we have with friends and extended family, to those that occur in our work life, and those we experience with mere acquaintances – all these relationships are based on our ability to communicate effectively.

One of the most common complaints following any failed personal relationship is that the other party didn’t listen or lack understanding, which amounts to the same thing. When a person appears to be listening but fails to truly understand what is being said and where the other person is coming from, this is because listening has not taken place – not the active listening that matters.

Human Beings are Social Creatures

Not only is communication unavoidable, but it is also genuinely desirable. We crave interaction to enliven our time on this earth and keep us (relatively) sane. It allows us to express our emotions – our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows – and share them with other people who we think may be interested or who may be able to help us make sense of them. But when we speak, there has to be someone listening for it to have any point.

In simple terms, speaking is one person reaching out, and listening is another person accepting and taking hold. Together, they form communication, and this is the basis of all human relationships. This being the case, the listener must be truly listening, intending to offer constructive feedback.

How catastrophic would it be if a depressed individual called a helpline and after fifteen minutes pouring out their heart, the listener said: “Uh-huh. What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening; tell me again.” A failure to listen can create immense hurt, if not real damage.

Active listening tells the speaker that what they have to say matters. It creates a sense of confidence that advice is at hand, advice that will be considered and useful. A listener is a sounding board that allows the speaker to develop thoughts that may, up to that moment, have been difficult to clarify.

This article is part one of a four-part series on Active Listening. Next week we will cover the common barriers to active listening.

Are you actively listening to others most of the time?


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