by Kelly Burgos Harper
Kelly Burgos Harper Communications & Vocal Coaching
Photo by Cassie Brkich, Brkich Design Group
When we think about good communication, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is how well we communicate through our spoken and written words or our actions. However, there’s another key element of communication that we don’t tend to give as much thought to: listening.
Seems like a simple thing, but research shows that many of us kinda suck at listening. In fact, we only retain about 25% of all that we hear.
It’s not our fault, really. We’re taught how to read, write and speak, but most of us aren’t taught how to listen. Plus, there are a heck of a lot of folks we have to listen to in a day. There is SO much noise, so much to do, so many distractions, and so many words and messages coming at us in so many ways that it’s easy to feel too preoccupied and overloaded to fully engage in the act of listening.
Luckily, listening is a skill we can learn and develop. And it may be worth the effort when we consider that experts say active listening creates understanding, is necessary for connection, and is an essential skill for effective leadership. In a recent Forbes.com article, the writer suggests that improving listening skills is “a simple way to save your business.”
If we count ourselves part of the majority whose listening skills could use improvement, we’d have to wonder how it might be affecting our lives and our businesses. How much are we missing? Where might there be disconnects?
In personal relationships, the lack of listening can cause hurt feelings, frustration, and misunderstanding. In business, it can cause the same problems and can result in wasted money and time through miscommunication, errors, ineffective decision-making, and ill-informed marketing.
As a person who spends most of my working hours writing copy, consulting, or coaching singers, it is imperative for me to be mindful of my listening skills. When I do it well, it feels amazing and I’m able to establish powerful connections and understanding that are invaluable to my work and my relationships, both professional and personal. Still, more often than I’d like to admit, I catch myself not being fully present in the act of listening. So, I’m choosing to put some work into developing better listening habits. Care to join me?
Quick story on this listening thing
I spent some time working for a guy I’ll call Mr. G. He was a wildly successful entrepreneur and certainly the most financially successful person I have ever known. Soon after I began participating in regular meetings and discussions with him, I noticed something very interesting about his communication style.
After a person had finished presenting information or answering a question, Mr. G would often leave a long pause before responding – sometimes challenging our four-second silence comfort limits. I could see the wheels turning in Mr. G’s head, which was usually a good thing, but if the other person didn’t know him so well, the silence would make them a little squirmy.
When Mr. G would finally respond, he would often present another question. After the person answered, there was usually another pause and another question. Some of his questions seemed a bit odd because they didn’t have an obvious connection to the main topic of discussion.
Sometimes after a meeting, I would end up talking with the person on my own, and they would ask about it. “So…how do you think it went? I mean, he was really drilling me,” or “he got so quiet there for a minute, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking.”
After getting to know Mr. G, I understood that what others perceived as “drilling” was just Mr. G exploring his curiosity. And the uncomfortable silences were just Mr. G honoring what the person had said by actually taking a few seconds to absorb it rather than jumping back with a quick response.
As time went on, I saw the direct correlation between his listening style and his success.
One day, Mr. G and a few colleagues are stopped at a red light in New Jersey when a car hits them from behind. Funny enough, it was a police car that had hit them. A cop quickly comes over to the driver’s side door apologizing and explaining that they need to fill out a report. A second cop shows up to Mr. G’s passenger door. Mr. G starts inquiring about the items on the police officer’s belt, then hits him up with questions about the reporting process and the process of pulling folks over. And he listens. Why not? They were stuck there for a time – might as well learn something, right?
Within two months, Mr. G announced that he was going to invest in new technology to help police officers pull data and create reports more efficiently.
Only Mr. G could turn a conversation at a traffic accident into a business opportunity.
What I learned
There were many meetings, business and personal, in which I witnessed Mr. G giving his conversations the space to unfold. Often, he was humble enough to know that he didn’t know everything and to believe that the person speaking might have something to teach him. His questions were genuinely aimed at discovery. When he didn’t understand something, he wasn’t afraid to admit it and to ask for clarification. And he listened intently, not out of obligation or politeness, but out of genuine curiosity and desire to learn.
Now, I’m not saying that all of Mr. G’s conversations were like this. I can’t imagine it’s possible or even healthy to listen intently to everything everyone has to say all the time. We do have limited time and energy. But let’s save the topic of conversational boundaries for another day.
In a final reflective thought, it warms my heart to consider the two-way gift we provide when we actively listen to someone. We are honoring them, their thoughts, and their feelings. At the same time, we are honoring ourselves by seizing the opportunity to learn and to experience the other’s perspective. Whether in a personal or professional relationship, I can’t think of many gifts that are more endearing or that foster greater connection. And if you’re like Mr. G, you just might find listening to be lucrative!
I’ll wrap up with the lyrics to one of my favorite 80s songs, “Words” by Missing Persons:
My lips are moving and the sound's coming out
The words are audible but I have my doubts
That you realize what has been said
You look at me as if you're in a daze
It's like the feeling at the end of the page
When you realize you don't know what you just read
What are words for when no one listens anymore
What are words for when no one listens
What are words for when no one listens it's no use talkin’ at all
Do you hear me?
Do you care?
Do you hear me?
Do you care?
Interested in this topic? Here are some stories, talks, and tips I found helpful and inspiring:
Test your listening skills (Psychology Today)
Discover "The Power of Listening" by William Ury (TED video)
Check out "5 Ways to Listen Better" by Julian Treasure (TEDx video)
Get 10 simple tips on "How to Become a Better Listener" by Henrik Edberg (article from The Positivity Blog)
Learn 4 things good listeners do (School of Life TEDEd video)