Are Poor Listening Skills Costing You Money?

Jul 29, 2014

Phone laptop office womanNote: Yesterday, Jeff Allen discussed the importance of having a “phone voice” and how to improve how you sound and what you say when taking on the telephone. Today, the focus is on listening skills.

Poor listening skills are costing you money.

If you’ve ever hung up from taking a job order only to discover later you missed an important detail and blew a placement, then you know just how expensive a mistake it was.

These things happen, but if it’s more than a once in a blue moon thing, blame your listening skills.

In truth, our listening skills have never been especially great. A 1983 study found that on average, viewers who just watched and listened to the evening news could only recall 17.2% of the content when not cued, and the cued group never exceeded 25%. A study a few years later found participants could recall only about 10% of their conversations immediately after they took place.

Researchers now suspect that with our preoccupation on multitasking our ability to recall what was said just moments earlier has only gotten worse. “Most people can think more than twice as fast as the average person talks, allowing the mind to wander,” says The Wall Street Journal.

The consequences are significant. Notes The Journal, “The failure to listen well not only prolongs meetings and discussions but also can hurt relationships and damage careers.” We may miss verbal cues, dismiss information that disagrees with our own views, or simply ignore what others are saying as we prepare what we’re going to say.

When we don’t listen well, the tendency of our brains is to fill in the gaps, leading us to think we know something when we really don’t. Like believing we have two weeks to fill the job order, instead of one. Or missing a candidate’s vague agreement about relocation, which should have been followed up with more penetrating questions.

Fortunately, all of us can learn to improve our listening skills.

One technique is embodied in the acronym RASA:

  • Receive the information by paying attention to what the other person is saying;
  • Appreciate the information with gestures as simple as an occasional “Hmmm” or “Really”;
  • Summarize what the other person said;
  • Ask questions.

If that seems too easy, try it. In order to summarize, you have to first pay attention. To keep your attention from wandering, and to show the person you are listening, ask questions. Summarizing will also help you note any gaps and ensure that you haven’t missed anything. It’s a good idea when you finish summarizing to ask if you have missed anything or misunderstood anything.

Another technique, most useful in a meeting, is to take notes and to occasionally make eye contact with the speaker. Taking notes during phone calls is also helpful, but not at the expense of taking so many notes you lose track of what the speaker is saying.

Monitoring your own ratio of speaking to listening will also help you improve. If you find yourself speaking more than 25% of the time, that’s an indication you’re not listening.

Prepare for important conversations — a presentation or a prep call with a sendout — by writing down in advance the key points that must be addressed, and the questions that need answering. Doing that will keep you focused on what others are saying. Your mind won’t be worrying about what you are going to be saying next.

There are any number of resources to help you improve your listening skills. Active Listening from the Center for Creative Leadership is one of the most popular primers on a list of hundreds.