2000 years ago an ancient philosopher (Zeno of Citium – if anyone asks) once said “We have been given two ears but a single mouth in order that we should hear more and talk less”. And of course it is still as relevant today as it ever was.

Often we interchange the words “HEARING’ and ‘LISTENING’ as if they meant the same thing, but of course they don’t.

Hearing is thought to be passive – the act of receiving the sound through the ear. Unless we have physical damage to the auditory system we should be able to hear without real effort any sound waves within our usual range. We can often hear things without being really conscious of it. The early morning bird chorus can be heard, but is not often remarked upon. To differentiate between the bird songs we need to actively listen.

Listening goes beyond hearing, it involves a conscious effort to comprehend what is being said. Listening means that we try to make sense of what we have heard. Active listening requires concentration on what is being said, not for the sound but for the meaning. This is the ACTUAL message. But by careful listening we can distinguish what he speaker actually means by interpreting the pitch, the rate and the emphasis being used. It also means being aware of the physical unspoken communication being used to enhance the message – that is of course, the body language. This supplies the IMPLIED message. Information is an intangible substance that must be sent by the speaker and received by an active listener.

The Importance of Being a Good Listener

The study of listening goes back to the 1920’s, researcher Paul Rankin conducted the first study of listening in 1929 – showing amazing results:

Seven out of every ten minutes awake was spent in some form of communication activity – of these seven minutes – or 70% of our waking time – the largest percentage of time was spent listening. And this was twenty years before television burst into our lounge rooms.

In today’s society with more telephones and mobile phones every day, we can probably increase that time. So if we spend all that time listening, you must be able to remember most of it – What do you think? Can you remember what was said at the last business meeting you attended? Can you recall all of it, or only some of it?

How much do we remember or recall?

Researchers have found that in a ten-minute presentation half of the message is lost immediately. 48 hours later 50% of what we DID remember has gone, which means that only about 25% of your original important message is ever retained. While there is a responsibility on the speaker to convey his message skilfully – there is also a responsibility on the hearer to listen with equal skill. Good Listening Skills are achieved through learning and practice

Listening is the most frequently used form of verbal communication and it is a critical skill in learning. Listening also helps us to develop our language skills. Listening is a precious gift – it is the gift of our time. It helps us to :

  • Build relationships.
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Ensures understanding, and
  • Improves accuracy

There are also more detailed benefits we can achieve by improving our listening skills: these include:

  • Expanding our knowledge through taking in new information
  • Developing our comprehension of the language and increasing our vocabulary
  • It helps us to determine the strong points and the weaknesses of an argument.
  • Listening is a good social skill, which can add to the quality of our lives.

How Can We Improve our Listening Skills?

1. It is extremely difficult to take in information when you are still talking. A good listener will stop talking and use what is known as ‘receptive language’Uh Uh … I see …. Oh really” are words that encourage the speaker’s train of thought and indicate that the listener is following along with the ideas being presented.

2. Show the Speaker that you are interested. This means using body language to encourage the speaker. Looking interested is important, and as our faces show most of our emotion, we need to consciously be aware of how we are feeling. Giving the speaker positive feedback by nodding in agreement, sitting forward and looking interested will help to make the communication process two way.

3. Next, listen with your eyes. We already know that a large part of the message is given with non-verbal cues. Be alert to the speaker’s body language and vocal intonation, these will warn when something important is about to be said. A receptive audience will encourage the speaker to open up.

4. Concentrate on what the speaker is saying. Listen with an open mind, and analyse the information being heard. This is difficult if the message concerns a topic on which you hold definite views, but all speakers deserve the courtesy of being listened to.

The fact is that most of us are poor listeners; we have never been taught how to listen effectively. But if we practice to improve our listening skills we can gain great benefits both personally and professionally. So remember Zeno of Citium, and try and use your ears twice as much as your mouth today – it might put a different slant on the day.


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