STEP FOUR: KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Returning for a moment to the distinction between hearing and listening, we can see that, like all senses, the primary purpose of hearing is “survival.” The primary reason we can hear (and listen, for that matter) is to protect ourselves from physical danger…first and foremost! So, let’s assume this need for physical survival serves as a first level filter that only 2000 out of 4 billion bits of data “gets through” and into our conscious. Next, let’s assume that the remaining 2000 is screened for physical threat and found to present none. When we (decide we) are not in physical danger, where does the focus of our listening turn? What are the primary “purposes” of listening when we are “safe” physically? That’s right! Emotional!
Our listening will be pointed in the direction of survival first and THEN what will make us “FEEL” the best. Here are the five broad categories that represent our “purposes” for listening:
- Survival: Again, first and foremost we listen to protect ourselves physically! Everything else represents or is intended to fulfill “emotional” survival
Informational: This purpose is to “help the self” through the acquisition of information…this includes information that protects us physically, but more often than not it leads to emotional fulfillment (knowledge = power, significance, certainty, safety etc.).
- Empathetic: This purpose is to “help others” by attending so much to what they are sharing that you “put yourself in their shoes.” The closest we can ever truly BE to BEING someone else is to listen to him or her. It is from that place of absolute empathetic (selfless) listening that we are of most help to others.
- Evaluative: To decide, after learning how the world “is”, what that MEANS to us…how we FEEL about the way the world IS…and how we wish to behave in the world.
Appreciation: To be impressed, motivated, enlightened, entertained or to feel any other form of variety/excitement (adrenaline, adventure, fantasy, novelty etc.).
Can you see how the “bits” that make it into consciousness will fall into one or more of these categorical purposes? Secondly, can you see that these purposes are not mutually exclusive…and therefore how easily can you see that these purposes may be “competing” for attention each second, minute or hour of even the BEST “attention spans?” Therefore, Step Four towards improved listening is to “know your purpose” and be able to continually remind yourself WHY you are or should be attending to the one to the exclusion of all others that are competing for your conscious attention!
STEP FIVE: KNOW THE ENEMY
There’s a saying that you should keep your friends close and your enemies even closer! The thinking is that what you don’t know can hurt you…and the more you know your enemy, the better you are able to protect yourself from it (or even avoid it altogether).
So, what are the enemies of effective listening? Again, and in one word, emotions! Emotions have the greatest impact on our effectiveness as listeners. Essentially, when we are listening we are vulnerable and knowing that makes it easier to understand why listening is so hard. Step Five to improving our listening is to be more “aware” and “familiar” with the enemies of listening…so it will be easier for you to (and for you to help others) avoid/overcome them.
What follows is a comprehensive list of factors MOSTLY made up of our own behaviors (motivated by our emotions/vulnerability) that prevent true and truly effective listening!
BARRIERS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS TO US (the listener):
- Physical Surroundings/Context: The background noise/competing stimuli including your own hunger, fatigue, anxiety or need to use the restroom for example.
- Pre-Occupation/Personal Problems: Areas of our life with strong emotional impact like health, relationships, finances have incredible “distraction” power from anything we may otherwise “want” or “need” to be paying attention to instead.
- Bias/Pre-Judgment: Pre-conceived notions, feelings, attitudes or beliefs about EITHER the speaker, content, or occasion/context can serve as a major barrier to the open-mind and focus required to listening.
- Assimilation and Filtering: When we filter and then attach meaning to what we observe, we may differ from the meaning made by others of the same observation. The differences in each of our filters for meaning-making are made up of values, attitudes, beliefs, past/personal experiences and culturally determined “ways of doing/being.” These differences and more so how often we IGNORE vs. ANTICIPATE/ACCOUNT FOR those differences in is a critical barrier to listening.
- Message Overload/Complexity: This is usually more a function of how committed you are to listening (the “pay” of paying attention as I say) than to how truly “complex” or “too much” any information could be. We may be uninterested or inexperienced but hardly ever un-ABLE to process information.
Again, when we truly listen we are vulnerable to SOMETHING! Our fears of losing time, pride, money, status, health, comfort, or anything of “value” may or may not be obvious to us, but you can bet that the following behaviors created by our fear/vulnerability are obvious to others:
BARRIERS THAT ARE OBVIOUS TO OTHERS (the subjects of your listening):
- Rehearsing Your Talk: We can actually “hear” the other person when we are rehearsing in our mind what we want to say next…it is a TRAP! As obvious as it is when someone does that to us, it is equally obvious to others when we are doing it!
- Pseudo Listening: This is when we consciously pretend to listen when know we are not. This is hard to do in person but very prevalent on the phone. We know we are TRYING to listen by intent, but to others we are paying attention to something else. It is better to be upfront that you are multi-tasking and give the other the option of tolerating your split attention or communicating another time…or it’s on you to prioritize and focus on one thing or another.
- Monopolizing: This is dominating or interpreting every conversation to focus on the self only. I used to have a friend that I’d watch ask others if they surfed that day JUST to interrupt the first word of their answer with, “Yeah, I got out and let me tell you about this one wave…” Sometimes, this is narcissistic and other times there is a genuine belief that the self is the most interesting/important subject…usually, however, monopolizers do not recognize that behavior as monopolizing…but its obvious to others!
- Selective Listening: Those we are listening to are well aware of the points they are trying to make. In our responses it becomes obvious if the listener was focused on only parts of the message vs. the entire meaning. This usually takes three forms:
- Ego-Defensive Listening is a focus on ONLY the parts of the message that can be interpreted as “attack”…and, of course, making and responding to THAT interpretation alone: “I’m being attacked, I’m defending myself.”
- Ambushing: Listening ONLY for messages that can be interpreted to support personal/pro-active attack. The behavior is “accusation” and ambushing is the listening that “decodes” ONLY for the purpose of accusing/attacking another.
Literal Listening is when we ignore (intentionally or innocently) the context, situation, environment or any “accompanying” factor for that message and interpret it on “face value” alone. Imagine listening ONLY to “break a leg” and ignoring the fact that you are an actor about to go on stage…you wouldn’t because that would serve you. But we serve ourselves by literal meaning to what others are relying on “context” to help them communicate.
- Knowing the Answer: When we think we already know what the speaker is trying to say, we may impatiently cut them off…if we ADD dis-agreement to that before we have given them the chance to express themselves fully, we can expect communication to degrade.
- Intention to Help: If you are pre-disposed to “helping others” you may mis-interpret the speaker’s TRUE need (or lack thereof) for ACTUAL HELP especially if you have mentally begun solving what you THINK is the problem before you actually if know if it really is a problem or what the problem really is! “I was just trying to help” MEANS (doesn’t excuse) that you were NOT “trying to listen!”
- Discussion as Sport: Some behavioral styles are pre-disposed to competition, achievement, goals, etc. As such, they can often “emotionally” disagree to avoid the vulnerability of seeming “weak”…even if they inwardly agree! Without even knowing it, these people can drive conversation into a “points contest” and decode everything to facilitate conflict and confrontation.
- Having an Agenda: If listening is for the execution of an “ulterior motive” or hidden agenda to impress or influence the speaker will be distracted from paying full/objective attention to what the speaker feeling, thinking or intending.
- Red Flag Reactions: Red Flag “words” can trigger immediate and powerful emotional associations in a listener’s mind to their private beliefs or past experiences of significance. Unaware of this filtering, unintended reactions occur when words that are “benign” to the speaker are in fact “malignant” to the listener…distracted by the private association, the listener is less able to understand what the speaker is really saying.
- Ambiguity of Language: Language is an organized system of symbols. These symbols have both connotative and denotative meanings…semantic and syntactic ambiguity plus cultural differences and many other reasons that language use does not guarantee shared meaning. Instead language use at best is to help us “predict” meaning that otherwise must be actively negotiated, calibrated and verified. When we misplace our trust in the precision of words we shortcut our capacity as listeners.
- Behavioral Style/Orientation: Much has been developed in the area of Behavioral, Personality, Emotional, and other such Assessments (Myers/Briggs and D.I.S.C. among the more popular) to improve the communication and human performance on the job and in relationships. Differences in these styles/orientations accounts for most mis-communication including “auto-stylistic and auto-motivated” listening.
All of these behaviors/barriers to listening come down to our vulnerability and willingness to BE vulnerable in exchange for the benefits of effective listening. The “survival instinct” (both physical and emotional) can work against our efforts to develop listening as a skill!
STEP SIX: ACKNOWLEDGE AND TREAT LISTENING AS A SKILL
I get so angry when I read a position description that includes in the qualifications: Must have excellent oral and written communication skills! I do not believe I have ever seen a position description that declares a requirement that candidates be excellent listeners! Listening is BY FAR the most under-rated and under-developed communication skill of all.
Because, and even if, people are afraid of Public Speaking, they usually admit readily that they “should take a public speaking class or join Toastmasters.” Some people you talk to would admit they could benefit from taking a writing class…people who are terrible writers will SAY they are. Yet, we are all poor listeners (especially compared to our ability) but NONE OF US admit we are or that we can benefit from IMPROVING this critical skill.
So, Step Six towards improving your Listening Effectiveness is to acknowledge and TREAT listening as a skill. Use it or lose it! Pay it if you want it to pay you! No pain, no gain. You get out what you put in! If you are not getting better you are getting worse! All cliché’s apply!