As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a PR and Corporate Communications student at Seneca College. For our public speaking course, our zany professor assigned us a reading from our Public Speaking textbook on Listening. I know – sounds pretty damn boring. But honestly, it opened up my eyes to the benefits of listening and how to become better at the skill. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from the text – I think it is useful for all people, both within and outside professional life!
There is a clear difference between hearing and listening. How many lectures have we all been to, when, lulled by a fairly boring professor’s tangent, she looks at you in the eyes and asks, “What do you think?”
You may have been hearing what she had to say, but perhaps it was hard to truly listen.
Most people are shockingly bad listeners. Even when we try, we usually grasp only 50% of what we hear.
When discussing the best approaches to public speaking, many of us focus on the actual SPEAKING part. Which makes sense. But it is incredibly important that we also understand what it takes to be truly good listeners.
Why is it important to be a good listener?
People in leadership positions and people who are fantastic at what they do are all excellent listeners. Why? So much of what successful people do depends on absorbing information that they hear. They need to do so quickly and accurately.
In our field of communications, listening is more important than ever. If you have this skill, you will guarantee to stand out.
Listening is also important to us as speakers – if you don’t listen effectively, you will pass on your misunderstandings to others. This is not good – especially in this day and age, with misinformation, fake news and people with a vested interest in confusing the public, it’s important to keep your listening skills sharp.
Now, there are four kinds of listening: Appreciative Listening, Empathic Listening, Comprehensive Listening, and Critical listening
Appreciative listening: Listening for pleasure and enjoyment. For example, listening to comedy, music or a fun speech.
Empathic listening: listening to provide emotional support for the speaker, like how a psychiatrist does, or when we listen to a friend in need.
Comprehensive listening: listening to try and grasp the message of a speaker. Examples would be listening in class, or listening to directions from a friend.
Finally, critical listening – this would be when we are listening to accept or reject a message: like a sales pitch, or a speech from a political candidate.
When it comes to public speaking, communications, or the workforce in general, the two types of listening that are the most important are critical listening and comprehensive listening. They’re both tied deeply to overall critical thinking. You have to use your minds, as well as your ears.
Let us start with the FOUR DON’TS of public speaking:
NUMBER ONE: Not concentrating enough. This is simple enough, of course. An obvious tip. But one that is very difficult to overcome at times. Part of this is based on something called the “spare brain time”. Basically, most people talk at about 120 to 150 words a minute. The rate at which the brain can process language is about 400 to 800 words a minute. That means there is a LOT of spare time between people’s words for us to get lost.
NUMBER TWO: Listening too hard. Yes, you heard right. Sometimes we listen way too hard, turning into human vacuums, sucking up every word as if each word is as equally important. In the process, we often miss the speaker’s main point and confusing the facts as well. This happens often, actually, especially when we care. Think about the time when a guy told you a reason he didn’t want to be with you for example. The main point there and the one to focus on is that you aren’t the right fit for him. But often, we all end up over listening, and as a result, overthinking the whole thing.
NUMBER THREE: Jumping to conclusions. I think we can all say we’ve been guilty of this. This can take many forms – sometimes, we are guilty of putting words into a speaker’s mouth. In fact, many of us have communication problems to the people we are closest to, because of this reason. We are so sure that we know what they mean, that we don’t listen to what they’re actually saying. Another form of jumping to conclusions is prematurely rejecting a speaker’s ideas as boring or misguided. This is a mistake – most everyone has something we can learn from, that could change the way we think.
NUMBER FOUR: Focusing on DELIVERY and personal appearance. This is also a common problem – we often judge people by how they look and speak rather than what they’re saying. We could focus on their dialect, their outfit or any number of things and get distracted. While this is common, it’s pretty unfair as well – not only to the speaker, but ourselves! What if we judged by appearance one of my most beloved heroes, Gandhi? We would’ve missed critical human lessons from an incredible, revolutionary man.
Now, I would like to give you FOUR dos on how to become a better listener:
NUMBER ONE: Take Listening Seriously. Much like ANY skill, the first step towards improving your listening is to give it the seriousness it calls for. Chapter 3 in our textbooks, on page 54, has a self-evaluation checklist to see exactly how you could improve your skills. Try it out – once you know what your problems are, it’s easier to overcome them.
NUMBER TWO: Be an active listener. We’re often listening passively to our parents, our iPods, our Podcasts and our television sets… it’s a habit. But what will make us excellent speakers is ACTIVE listening, which is to give our undivided attention in a genuine way to speakers. We can do this by taking notes, suspending our judgements, and being mindful in our listening.
NUMBER THREE: RESIST DISTRACTIONS: Let’s be real – in this world, we cannot eliminate physical and mental distractions. Whether that be construction work, or a classmate chewing and chomping on their gum loudly, there’s not much we can do to stop these distractions. What we CAN do is things like putting our phones away, sitting comfortably, reviewing mentally what the speaker has said to make sure we understand it.
NUMBER FOUR: LOOK PAST APPEARANCE/DELIVERY: Some of our best speakers, including Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking, and as I mentioned before, Gandhi, are all people who did not have very impressive or cultivated appearances. If we had all judged them by this, imagine just how much poorer the world would be. Try not to let negative feelings about how someone looks distract you. Instead, focus on the message that people are conveying – if necessary, look behind the person at the wall!
I want to leave you with something personal, something that has helped me become a better listener. Once, someone whom I admire read aloud the following quote by a beloved author of his, Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was a fabulous writer, and it sometimes takes a good listener to understand the message he wanted to put out there.
At first, I didn’t understand the quote. I frankly thought it was mumbo jumbo. The dear friend asked me to close my eyes while he read it to me. It amazed me how closing my eyes erased many of my distractions and allowed me to focus, and therefore understand.
“People say sometimes that Beauty is superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is visible, not the invisible.”
This taught me that improving my listening skills helped me gain a deeper better understanding of the world around me: I learned to check my assumptions, erase my distractions, and focus.