Let’s start with three facts about listening.

  • Research shows people listen very poorly.
  • Listening is not the same as hearing.
  • The greater the difference in status the less active listening is likely to occur.

A study of one hundred US businesses found that effective communication diminishes with each step down the corporate hierarchy.

At Board Level, one director talking to another might get 90% of his or her message across. When a Vice-President spoke to the Board Chairman only 67% was attended listened to.

When the Vice-President spoke to General Manager only 56% of what was said was actually listened to and when a worker listened to the former only 20% of what was said was attended to.

One problem is that the brain can process incoming verbal information far faster than it can be spoken. 200 words output versus 500 words process. This allows spare processing capacity during which the mind can be inattentive.

The first barrier to successful listening is the mistake belief that one can perform two mentally demanding actions simultaneously.

To avoid the trap of Distracted Listening you must first determine your priorities.

If your current workload takes precedent, explain politely but firmly you can’t stop right away. Fix a time when you will be able to give him or her your undivided attention. Far from being upset the other person is likely to feel flattered at being taken seriously.

When you sense that he has something crucial to tell you, stop what you are doing and listen carefully.

Never try to listen if you are anxious, upset or angry. Strong emotions filter out all but a tiny proportion of what is said.

We tend to focus on information that confirms our first impression and fail to hear anything that contradicts it.

Delay until you have calmed down and can assess the situation objectively before attempting to listen. Even a short break can make a big difference to the care and attention to bring to what is said.

Another common mistake is to listen Dismissively because you’ve already decided that person has nothing worthwhile to say.

Finally there is Judgemental listening in which you have already passed judgement on what you are about to hear and are only listening carefully enough to have your opinion confirmed.

Positive Listening involves paying attention not just to the words spoken, but to those that are left unsaid.

It also means listening with your eyes as well as ears. Any interruptions, especially critical comments, will only inhibit self-disclosures and make it impossible for you to get to the root of a problem.

Pay close attention to tone of voice.

Does he or she sound sad when giving you what seems good news, such as promotion or happy when recounting an upset.

A conflict between what is said and how those words are spoken provides clues to painful emotions simmering below the surface.

Be alert too for jokes, especially self-mocking ones. Humour is often used to express ideas or describe feelings that arouse anxiety or embarrassment.

Observe facial expression, gestures and posture. Physical tension or anxious fidgets betray emotional stresses. Notice too any pauses, hesitations or repetitions are often caused by anxiety.

Positive listening is not easy.

You may long to offer a reassuring comment or criticise some irritating admission. Yet such interruptions only make it harder to find out what’s going wrong. Your silence combined with positive body language – such as nods, smiles where appropriate and a relaxed posture – encourage the words to flow.

By saying a little and listen a lot you will learn so much more and understand both children and other adults too much better!