Listening Is a 10-Part Skill


Dr. Nichols, Head of the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota In­stitute of Agriculture in St. Paul, is coauthor of the popular book, Are You Listening? and of the widely adopted college textbook, Lis­tening and Speaking. This article is reprinted, by permission, from the July 1957 issue of Nation’s Business.

White collar workers, on the average, devote at least 40 per cent of their workday to listening. Ap­parently 40 per cent of their sal­ary is paid to them for listening. Yet tests of listening comprehen­sion have shown that, without training, these employees listen at only 25 per cent efficiency.

This low level of performance becomes increasingly intolerable as evidence accumulates that it can be significantly raised. The component skills of listening are known. They boil down to this:

Learning through listening is primarily an inside job—inside action on the part of the listener. What he needs to do is to replace some common present attitudes with others.

Recognizing the dollar values in effective listening, many com­panies have added courses in this skill to their regular training pro­grams. Some of the pioneers in this effort have been American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Gen­eral Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company, The Dow Chemi­cal Company, Western Electric Co., Inc., Methods Engineering Council of Pittsburgh, Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., Thompson Products, Inc., of Cleve­land, and Rogers Corp. of Con­necticut.

Warren Ganong of the Methods Engineering Council has compared trainees given a preliminary dis­cussion of efficient listening with those not provided such discussion. On tests at the end of the courses the former achieved marks 12 to 15 per cent higher than did the latter.

A. A. Tribbey, general personnel supervisor of the Wisconsin Tele­phone Company, in commenting on the results of a short conference course in which effective listening was stressed, declared: "It never fails to amaze us when we see the skill that is acquired in only three days."

The conviction seems to be growing that upper-level managers also need listening skill. As Dr. Earl Planty, executive counselor for the pharmaceutical firm of Johnson & Johnson, puts it: "By far the most effective method by which executives can tap ideas of subordinates is sympathetic listen­ing in the many day-to-day in­formal contacts within and outside the work place. There is no sys­tem that will do the job in an easier manner…. Nothing can equal an executive’s willingness to hear."

A study of the 100 best listeners and the 100 worst listeners in the freshman class on the University of Minnesota campus has disclosed 10 guides to improved listening. Business people interested in im­proving their own performance can use them to analyze their per­sonal strengths and weaknesses. The 10 guides to good listening are:

1. Find area of interest

All studies point to the advan­tage in being interested in the topic under discussion. Bad listen­ers usually declare the subject dry after the first few sentences. Once this decision is made, it serves to rationalize any and all inattention.

Good listeners follow different tactics. True, their first thought may be that the subject sounds dry. But a second one immediately follows, based on the realization that to get up and leave might prove a bit awkward.

The final reflection is that, being trapped anyhow, perhaps it might be well to learn if anything is being said that can be put to use.

The key to the whole matter of interest in a topic is the word use. Whenever we wish to listen effi­ciently, we ought to say to our­selves: "What’s he saying that I can use? What worth-while ideas has he? Is he reporting any work­able procedures? Anything that I can cash in, or with which I can make myself happier?" Such ques­tions lead us to screen what we are hearing in a continual effort to sort out the elements of personal value. G. K. Chesterton spoke wisely indeed when he said, "There is no such thing as an uninterest­ing subject; there are only unin­terested people."

2.Judge content, not delivery

Many listeners alibi inattention to a speaker by thinking to them­selves: "Who could listen to such a character? What an awful voice! Will he ever stop reading from his notes?"

The good listener reacts dif­ferently. He may well look at the speaker and think, "This man is inept. Seems like almost anyone ought to be able to talk better than that." But from this initial simi­larity he moves on to a different conclusion, thinking, "But wait a minute…. I’m not interested in his personality or delivery. I want to find out what he knows. Does this man know some things that I need to know?"

Essentially, we "listen with our own experience." Is the conveyer to be held responsible because we are poorly equipped to decode his message? We cannot understand everything we hear, but one sure way to raise the level of our un­derstanding is to assume the re­sponsibility which is inherently ours.

3.Hold your fire

Overstimulation is almost as bad as understimulation, and the two together constitute the twin evilsof inefficient listening. The overstimulated listener gets too ex­cited, or excited too soon, by the speaker. Some of us are greatly addicted to this weakness. For us, a speaker can seldom talk for more than a few minutes without touch­ing upon a pet bias or conviction. Occasionally we are roused in sup­port of the speaker’s point; usu­ally it is the reverse. In either case overstimulation reflects the desire of the listener to enter, somehow, immediately into the argument.

The aroused person usually be­comes preoccupied by trying to do three things simultaneously: cal­culate what hurt is being done to his own pet ideas; plot an embar­rassing question to ask the speak­er; enjoy mentally all the discom­fiture visualized for the speaker once the devastating reply to him is launched. With these things go­ing on subsequent passages go un­heard.

We must learn not to get too ex­cited about a speaker’s point until we are certain we thoroughly un­derstand it. The secret is contained in the principle that we must al­ways withhold evaluation until our comprehension is complete.

4. Listen for ideas

Good listeners focus on central ideas; they tend to recognize the characteristic language in which central ideas are usually stated, and they are able to discriminate between fact and principle, idea and example, evidence and argu­ment. Poor listeners are inclined to listen for the facts in every presentation.

To understand the fault, let us assume that a man is giving us in­structions made up of facts A to Z. The man begins to talk. We hear fact A and think: "We’ve got to remember it!" So we begin a memory exercise by repeating "Fact A, fact A, fact A…."

Meanwhile, the fellow is telling us fact B. Now we have two facts to memorize. We’re so busy doing it that we miss fact C completely. And so it goes up to fact Z. We catch a few facts, garble several others, and completely miss the rest.

It is a significant fact that only about 25 per cent of persons lis­tening to a formal talk are able to grasp the speaker’s central idea. To develop this skill requires an ability to recognize conventional organizational patterns, transi­tional language, and the speaker’s use of recapitulation. Fortunately, all of these items can be readily mastered with a bit of effort.

5. Be flexible

Our research has shown that our 100 worst listeners thought that note-taking and outlining were synonyms. They believed there was but one way to take notes—by making an outline.

Actually, no damage would be done if all talks followed some definite plan of organization. Un­fortunately, less than half of even formal speeches are carefully or­ganized. There are few things more frustrating than to try to outline an unoutlineable speech.

Note-taking may help or may become a distraction. Some per­sons try to take down everything in shorthand; the vast majority of us are far too voluminous even in longhand. While studies are not too clear on the point, there is some evidence to indicate that the volume of notes taken and their value to the taker are inversely re­lated. In any case, the real issue is one of interpretation. Few of us have memories good enough to re­member even the salient points we hear. If we can obtain brief, mean­ingful records of them for later review, we definitely improve our ability to learn and to remember.

The 100 best listeners had ap­parently learned early in life that if they wanted to be efficient note-takers they had to have more than one system of taking notes. They equipped themselves with four or five systems, and learned to adjust their system to the organizational pattern, or the absence of one, in each talk they heard. If we want to be good listeners, we must be flexible and adaptable note-takers.

6. Work at listening

One of the most striking charac­teristics of poor listeners is their disinclination to spend any energy in a listening situation. College students, by their own testimony, frequently enter classes all worn out physically; assume postures which only seem to give attention to the speaker; and then proceed to catch up on needed rest or to re­flect upon purely personal matters. This faking of attention is one of the worst habits afflicting us as a people.

Listening is hard work. It is characterized by faster heart ac­tion, quicker circulation of the blood, a small rise in bodily tem­perature. The over relaxed listener is merely appearing to tune in, and then feeling conscience-free to pursue any of a thousand mental tangents.

For selfish reasons alone one of the best investments we can make is to give each speaker our con­scious attention. We ought to establish eye contact and maintain it; to indicate by posture and facial expression that the occasion and the speaker’s efforts are a matter of real concern to us. When we do these things, we help the speaker to express himself more clearly, and we in turn profit by better understanding of the im­proved communication we have helped him to achieve. None of this necessarily implies acceptance of his point of view or favorable ac­tion upon his appeals. It is, rather, an expression of interest.

7. Resist distractions

The good listeners tend to ad­just quickly to any kind of ab­normal situation; poor listeners tend to tolerate bad conditions and, in some instances, even to create distractions themselves.

We live in a noisy age. We are distracted not only by what we hear, but by what we see. Poor listeners tend to be readily influ­enced by all manner of distrac­tions, even in an intimate face-to-­face situation.

A good listener instinctively fights distraction. Sometimes the fight is easily won—by closing a door, shutting off the radio, mov­ing closer to the person talking, or asking him to speak louder. If the distractions cannot be met that easily, then it becomes a matter of concentration.

8.  Exercise your mind

Poor listeners are inexperienced in hearing difficult, expository ma­terial. Good listeners apparently develop an appetite for hearing a variety of presentations difficult enough to challenge their mental capacities.

Perhaps the one word that best describes the bad listener is "inex­perienced." Although he spends 40 per cent of his communication day listening to something, he is inex­perienced in hearing anything tough, technical, or expository. He has for years painstakingly sought light, recreational material. The problem he creates is deeply sig­nificant, because such a person is a poor producer in factory, office, or classroom.

Inexperience is not easily or quickly overcome. However, knowl­edge of our own weakness may lead us to repair it. We need never become too old to meet new chal­lenges.

9.  Keep your mind open

Parallel to the blind spots which afflict human beings are certain psychological deaf spots which im­pair our ability to perceive and understand. These deaf spots are the dwelling place of our most cherished notions, convictions, and complexes. Often, when a speaker invades one of these areas with a word or phrase, we turn our mind to retraveling familiar mental pathways crisscrossing our in­vaded area of sensitivity.

It is hard to believe in moments of cold detachment that just a word or phrase can cause such emotional eruption. Yet with poor listeners it is frequently the case; and even with very good listeners it is occasionally the case. When such emotional deafness trans­pires, communicative efficiency drops rapidly to zero.

Among the words known thus to serve as red flags to some listeners are: mother-in-law, landlord, red­neck, sharecropper, sissy, pervert, automation, clerk, income tax, com­munist, Red, dumb farmer, pink, "Greetings," antivivisectionist, evolution, square, punk, welsher.

Effective listeners try to iden­tify and to rationalize the words or phrases most upsetting emo­tionally. Often the emotional im­pact of such words can be de­creased through a free and open discussion of them with friends or associates.

10. Capitalize on thought speed

Most persons talk at a speed of about 125 words a minute. There is good evidence that if thought were measured in words per minute, most of us could think easily at about four times that rate. It is difficult—almost painful—to try to slow down our thinking speed. Thus we normally have about 400 words of thinking time to spare during every minute a person talks to us.

What do we do with our excess thinking time while someone is speaking? If we are poor listeners, we soon become impatient with the slow progress the speaker seems to be making. So our thoughts turn to something else for a moment, then dart back to the speaker. These brief side excursions of thought continue until our mind tarries too long on some enticing but irrele­vant subject. Then, when our thoughts return to the person talk­ing, we find he’s far ahead of us. Now it’s harder to follow him and increasingly easy to take off on side excursions. Finally we give up; the person is still talking, but our mind is in another world.

The good listener uses his thought speed to advantage; he constantly applies his spare think­ing time to what is being said. It is not difficult once one has a defi­nite pattern of thought to follow. To develop such a pattern we should:

>Try to anticipate what a person is going to talk about. On the basis of what he has already said, ask yourself: "What’s he trying to get at? What point is he going to make?"

>Mentally summarize what the person has been saying. What point has he made already, if any?

>Weigh the speaker’s evidence by mentally questioning it. As he pre­sents facts, illustrative stories, and statistics, continually ask your­self: "Are they accurate? Do they come from an unprejudiced source? Am I getting the full pic­ture, or is he telling me only what will prove his point?"

>Listen between the lines. The speaker doesn’t always put every­thing that’s important into words. The changing tones and volume of his voice may have a meaning. So may his facial expressions, the gestures he makes with his hands, the movement of his body.

Not capitalizing on thought speed is our greatest single handi­cap. The differential between thought speed and speech speed breeds false feelings of security and mental tangents. Yet, through listening training, this same dif­ferential can be readily converted into our greatest asset.


September 1959

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