Three Common Dangerous Assumptions about Listening
We often ask workshop participatns to share some of their assumptions about listening. Although some have merit, based on our research and experience, many of these initial assumptions are totally off base. See if you have made any of the following unfounded, and at times dangerous, assumptions concerning listening.
Dangerous Assumption #1
• Speakers control communication more than listeners.
Many of us believe that “having the floor” means controlling the agenda, whether in one-on-one conversations or in large groups. This is why we spend so much time learning to speak effectively; we think speaking is the only currency for good communication.
• Listeners hold communication power.
Think about meetings and programs you have attended. Have you ever been a member of a hostile audience? If so, you observed listening power first hand. No matter how skilled, charismatic, or engaging a speaker may be, we decide whether or not to listen.
The CEO of an eastern utility corporation ran into a buzz saw at a meeting of union employees. He began his presentation with a reference to the improved safety record at the plant, but was unaware that a fatal accident had occurred that morning while he was en route. A rookie lineman had been electrocuted when he failed to put on rubber gloves to handle a hot wire. The workers at the gathering began to yell angry remarks and eventually the CEO was led out the side door by the HR representative to protect him from more verbal abuse.
If the CEO had attempted to pull rank to get his workers to listen the situation would have gotten even worse.
• Speakers cannot force others to listen.
On the other hand, listeners who are aware of their power can take full advantage of the situation.
Joanne, a retail manager at an upscale department store in Los Angeles, gives her clothing buyers full attention when discussing their options. She asks questions, uses head nods, smiles and makes eye contact to control the pace of the discussion. Her buyers don’t even notice that, although she speaks very little during the planning sessions, she is in full control of the outcome.
In this case, Joanne uses her listening skills to make good use of her time by demonstrating her involvement and interest.
Dangerous Assumption #2.
• We can listen well when we really have to.
This assumption can lead to over confidence in our ability to listen effectively. We ask participants to test this assumption in each of our seminars. They are shown a 20-second video clip about an emergency hospital situation. We ask them, before viewing the clip, to imagine that this is a life and death situation where high level listening is critical. After being asked 10 simple questions about what they have seen and heard, few participants can answer more than four questions correctly.
• Listening harder doesn’t necessarily mean listening better.
Frieda, one of our seminar participants from Oregon, told us that she used to assume that through intense concentration she could remember important messages accurately. She relayed that her assumption was debunked when she filed an incorrect financial report based on her memory of a phone conversation while away from her desk. A government auditor challenged Frieda’s numbers and her company had to pay a penalty as a result. She now records all information on specially prepared note pads and asks associates to confirm her notes.
• Listeners over estimate how much information they remember.
Even highly trained listeners have trouble with technical and unfamiliar information. Research on retention has found that most people remember less than 50% of what was said immediately after a 10-minute talk. That percentage drops to less than 10% after 24 hours. Married couples were found to retain only 35% of the previous hour’s discussion. 1
AT&T has capitalized on the fact that most of us can not remember a string of seven numbers long enough to dial them after calling information. For an additional charge, the information operator will dial the number for us, thus eliminating possible or probable listening errors. Those of us who take full advantage of our listening power can beat these percentages.
Dangerous Assumption #3.
• When we start talking, others start listening.
Test this assumption by thinking back to a recent meeting you attended. Were you mentally and emotionally focused to begin listening the moment the first speaker began? Or were you still thinking about the unfinished work on your desk, travel arrangements that needed to be made, or countless other items on your to-do list?
• It takes time for us to engage as listeners.
When we begin to talk, we often forget that others may not be prepared to listen. Most of us need at least a few seconds to get on track when someone else begins to speak. It’s like shifting gears to let our thoughts mesh comfortably with the speaker’s words and ideas.
In these situations, without conscious awareness and incentive, most of us have trouble listening immediately. This is one reason that public speakers have been trained to use attention-getting introductions such as startling statements, jokes, or personal anecdotes to capture listeners’ attention.
• We can train ourselves to listen immediately with incentive and practice.
During the Operations meetings in a disk drive manufacturing plant, several statistics were shared by the Finance and Human Resources functions. The Finance organization reported their information first while the Human Resources manager would busily prepare for her presentation. Unfortunately, during one presentation, the headcount number presented by Finance did not match the headcount number later presented by the Human Resources manager. After enduring embarrassing questioning from the Plant Manager during her presentation, the Human Resources Manager no longer used the Finance presentation as preparation time. When she heard a discrepancy in the numbers from Finance, she was able to question the premise and satisfactorily explain the differences to the Plant Manager.
With training and effort, we can change mental gears rapidly and focus on the speaker’s ideas quickly.