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Monday, September 3, 2012

Listening - What makes us Poor Listeners?

Listening is the ability to identify and understand what others are saying. This involves understanding a speaker’s accent or pronunciation, his grammar and his vocabulary, and grasping his meaning (Howatt and Dakin). An able listener is capable of doing these four things simultaneously. According to Bulletin (1952), listening is one of the fundamental language skills. It’s a medium through which we gain a large part of our education, our information, our understanding of the world and of human affairs, our ideals, sense of values, and their appreciation. In this day of mass communication, Bulletin says that it is of vital importance to listen effectively and critically. According to Dr. Harrell T. Allel, “listening is hard work. It requires increased energy.”

Listening to and understanding speech involves a number of basic processes; some depending upon linguistic competence, some depending upon previous knowledge that is not necessarily of a purely linguistic nature, and some depending upon psychological variables that affect the mobilization of competence and knowledge in the given context of a situation. As we listen for a purpose, we make an immediate response to what we hear. There are some visual or environmental clues as to the meaning of what is heard. Stretches of heard discourse come in short chunks, and the most heard discourse is spontaneous. Therefore, it differs from formal spoken prose in the amount of redundancy ‘noise’ and colloquialisms, and its auditory character.

Box I: While listening do you frequently
        Go on ‘side excursions’, and as a result miss what is being said?
    Feel impatient and wonder when the speaker will finish?
    Interrupt the speaker?
    Spend more time in talking than listening to the speaker?
    Misinterpret what is being said by selective hearing?
    Extend unsolicited solutions to the problem well before the speaker          completes his explanation
    Show boredom?
If your answer is ‘Yes’ to these questions, then you may perhaps be required to do some drilling on your listening skills.

Active listening involves a person listening to another person and then responding to that person using techniques such as paraphrasing. In this way, the listener restates what has been said in order to demonstrate empathy, show that he/she is listening to and understanding what is being said. Robert Bolton defines active listening as a “combination of hearing what the other says and a suspended waiting, an intense psychological involvement with the other”. Listening is an active skill that demands an intense concentration and quite a lot of energy. A good listener, while attending to whatever the speaker is saying, pays an equal attention to what is not being said and what the speaker wants to say but experiences difficulty in communicating it. 

A good listener thus wears out more quickly than the speaker because when he pays such a close attention to the speaker, his whole body becomes involved through actual physiological changes such as dilation of blood vessels, change in rhythm of breathing, dilation of pupils, etc. Indeed, it is these bodily changes that prepare us physically to take in information more effectively. Such an active listening alone enables a listener to understand well the feelings behind the words that included the complimentary, the complaining, the suggestive, the defensive, the cooperative or the aggressive. Listening is thus a receptive skill, and receptive skills lead eventually to productive skills. In the ultimate analysis, it is the listeners who control the communication, not the speakers.

Listening has a social aspect too and hence good listening is essential and people living together in communities and organizations are obliged to meet this requirement. But we cannot certainly listen to everyone, nor have we time to listen to all that is being spoken. When you choose not to listen to some speakers, they are prone to conclude that their ideas are not significant and that they are not worth your time. On the other hand, if you choose to listen to a speaker and listen, the speaker feels empowered and freely voices his ideas. There would be occasions when one on hearing incorrect information may end up in an ethical dilemma, but in the context of organizations one has to carefully choose to listen or not, weighing one’s own knowledge, beliefs, and values against the rights of the speakers. Secondly, as a practicing manager one should bear in mind that his choosing to listen or not to listen to his colleagues, customers, etc., will have a bearing on the morale of the employees/welfare of the organization. As against this requirement, there are many who simply ‘switch-off’ themselves from what others are speaking, once they perceive that it is against their beliefs and their interests of course, and also certainly against the interests of the organization as well as of the individual concerned.

What makes us Poor Listeners?
As seen earlier, it is primarily our preoccupation with our thought process or the lack of interest in the speaker or the topic on which he is speaking that keeps us away from listening to others, but that’s only a temporary phenomenon. There are certain internal conditions that define one’s disposition towards listening on a long-term basis. They are indeed very powerful in influencing the very communication and its effectiveness in the organizational context. Let us take a deeper look at some such ‘personal traits’ that tremendously influence one’s listening abilities:

A self-centered person often demands others to listen to him, rather than he listens to others. Parents, for example, who have ambitious expectations of their children’s accomplishments, seldom listen to what their children’s desires are. A manager, whose primary concern is to achieve monthly sales volumes, may not listen well to the problems faced by the marketing department except to insist that they must achieve sales targets. Thus, in any relationship where needs, desires, and interests are paramount, individuals will be more prone to tell or demand than to listen and accept. Such a ‘self-centered’ orientation obviously makes one a poor listener.

Reluctance to Become Involved
Listening results in absorption of ideas, feelings, and the intents of the speaker. This can mean feeling obligated and entangled. Listening is thus perceived as taking the risk of getting involved with some one—the speaker. Involvement with another person can be pleasant or unpleasant and an unpleasant reaction may simply threaten one’s “self-image”. It is under the fear of getting involved or entangled with others that people often refuse to listen. For instance, a bystander on the road quite often refuses to come to the rescue of an accident victim under the fear of being questioned etc., and simply says, “I don’t want to get involved.” The image we have of ourselves is a mix of how we feel of ourselves and how others react to us. Suppose, we offer friendship and it is rejected, then we feel inferior and even perhaps inadequate and therefore avoid ‘involvement’. Listening is an involvement with someone. Similarly, a bank manager may avoid listening to a less-credit-worthy client out of the fear that he may get involved in sanctioning a loan. It is these kinds of personal threats that often keep people away from that personal involvement called “listening”.

Fear of Change
Listening to someone enables us to learn something new. Learning obviously leads to questioning our current opinions, which could be pretty unsettling. Change may sound good, but we often find status quo quite comforting. Being driven by such a philosophy, people are found less eager to listen but more enthusiastic in changing others. Similarly, if a manager and a clerk enter into a conversation, each with a belief that “I am (Manager/Clerk) right and you (Clerk/Manager) are wrong”, listening is less likely to occur. There is another tendency among many: “Why listen to someone else if we already know what is what?” Such an attitude obviously results in poor listening.

Desire to avoid the embarrassment of asking questions
Quite often after listening to a lecture we feel like asking a question for better understanding of the topic. But hesitate to say, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Would you please explain?” How to explain this reluctance? Is it an embarrassment that we are trying to avoid and in the process stay unlearnt of the topic under discussion? It is this very reluctance to be embarrassed that often becomes an obstacle to our listening. Whenever we feel uncertain about what the speaker is saying and hesitate to seek clarification we are prone to be disadvantaged by our sense of ignorance and it is owing to that reluctance to reveal our ignorance that we cease listening. It is only those who have the courage to seek help from the speaker to understand it more clearly, can really practice active listening. 

Satisfaction with External Appearances
A good listener will always probe and question and ask for more information. He may even ask for examples to substantiate what the speaker is taking about. Good listening means looking beyond the literal meanings of what is being said to see if additional information is being suggested. Normally, a speaker seldom expresses all that he thought in the very first sentence itself. If a listener hearing the first sentence itself infers what the speaker is saying is already known to him, he would only qualify as a poor listener.

Premature Judgment
In a lecture hall or even in a one-to-one conversation we often come across people saying, “Oh, I know what you mean” without listening to the full message. It only indicates that they are not listening. Listening is only possible when we keep aside quick judgments and over simplified labels and attempt to understand the person who is trying to tell us something. This premature jump is a great hurdle for listening.

Semantic Confusion
Words have two meanings: connotative meanings and denotative meanings. The connotation must be understood through capable listening. Dickering with words may start wars or prevent them. Words and their different meanings can contribute to or detract from the human growth possible through social interaction. Words and their meanings can raise or lower morale, bring people together or blow them apart, enhance or inhibit understanding and help or endanger human growth.

There are thus many reasons why we turn out to be poor listeners. Now, the question is how then can we arrest this trend and listen better. We shall examine it later 
- grk

Keywords: Soft Skills, Listening, Why are we poor listeners? 


Dr.A.Jagadeesh said...

Listening is an important attribute one should develop. While listenining one gets more knowledge (than middle middle interrupt).
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

karpuramanjari said...

Thanks for reading the post Dr. Jagadeesh garu...

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