Give the Gift of Listening this Holiday Season

Listening is one of the most prominent activities in our daily lives. In fact, with the exception of breathing, there is nothing we do more frequently than listen. Unfortunately, most of us don't listen as well as we could. 
Listening in the exhibit hall at 2019 NECListening is one of the most prominent activities in our daily lives. In fact, with the exception of breathing, there is nothing we do more frequently than listen. Unfortunately, most of us don't listen as well as we could. Research indicates that the average person forgets 50% of what they hear within seconds of a conversation. Within two days, we lose 75% and a week after a conversation, we have lost over 90% of what was discussed. This occurs because of the four barriers to effective listening we encounter on a regular basis:

A natural tendency to want to speak first and focus on our own agenda. This may be the most significant barrier. The desire to speak first can get in the way of our ability to really hear and understand the other person. Remember, you cannot listen and speak at the same time.

Negative perceptions regarding the speaker and/or topic. If you lack enthusiasm for either your communication partner or the subject matter, your ability to listen can be severely limited. This is an example of emotional noise (see below).

Our ability to think much faster than someone can speak. Each of us has the ability to process words 4-5 times faster than a person can speak them. This can lead to impatience if your communication partner is not making his or her points quickly enough.

Internal, external, emotional and cultural noise. By definition, noise is anything that interferes with the accurate transmission of a message between a sender and a receiver. Internal noise refers to distractions that take place within us, such as having something on our mind or being in a rush. This can easily take our attention away from a communication partner. External noise involves distractions that take place around us and diminish our attention. Emotional noise consists of words or circumstances that arouse strong emotions in us and thereby limit our communication effectiveness. Cultural noise is grounded in our differences, such as differences in language, religion, age, race, job position or gender. These differences have the potential to negatively impact our communication.

The good news is that listening is not as difficult as we sometimes make it out to be. The most important thing to keep in mind is there are two aspects of effective listening. The first, and most obvious, is that listening involves understanding the message being sent by your communication partner in the way they intend. The second, and frequently neglected aspect, is that effective listening involves the articulation of your understanding to your communication partner. In other words, you demonstrate to that person that you clearly understand his or her message. There are several things you can do to improve your listening in both areas:
  1. Focus on the speaker by making a conscious effort to listen – actually say to yourself, "For the next two minutes, I am only going to listen".
  2. Make sure the conversation takes place at a time and place where you feel comfortable talking. If you are in a rush, defer the conversation until later.
  3. Utilize active listening skills. Active listening consists of the listener's attempt to give back (or reflect) what has been stated by the speaker. If you are going to effectively reflect the feelings and content of the speaker's message, then you really have to pay attention. A good way to begin a reflective statement is, “What I hear you saying is…” or “Sounds like you…”
  4. Utilize good nonverbal behavior to demonstrate to the speaker that you are focusing on their message. For example, always face the person and use an open posture, maintain eye contact (although keep in mind there is a strong cultural element in eye contact - direct eye contact is taboo in some cultures), and use 'following' behaviors such as head nods.
  5. Pay attention to nonverbal clues from the speaker such as body posture, facial expressions and gestures. Much of the content from the message may be unspoken communication.
  6. Have patience and be willing to let the speaker take some time to get his or her message across.
Follow these simple steps and you will not only improve your ability as a listener, you will improve your work quality and productivity. Perhaps most significantly, you will also find that people are more interested in listening to you.

Dr. Tyrone HolmesDr. Tyrone Holmes is a professional speaker and coach who has facilitated over 1,500 keynotes, training seminars and classes that have taught participants to connect with others despite their differences, to effectively articulate their messages, to connect with diverse audiences and groups, and to reduce unconscious bias. Dr. Holmes will be speaking at the upcoming CGMP Summit on May 18 and the 2020 NEC to be held May 19-21, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Dr. Holmes' most recent book, Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage: 70 Tips to Improve Communication, is a tool we can use to build powerful connections in diverse settings. Visit his website at