Where there is an absence of active listening, there is poor communication, and where there is poor communication, opportunities are missed and problems are created or perpetuated.
Active listening encourages people to open up, reduces the chance of misunderstandings, helps to resolve problems and conflicts, and builds trust.
Research has shown that the majority of people spend up to 90% of their waking time engaged in some form of communication, be that reading, writing, speaking or listening. However, over half of our communication time is taken up with listening – or what passes for listening. Anyone in a managerial position is likely to devote as much as 70% of their communication time to listening. The higher up the chain of command you go, the more demand is placed on the individual to listen to other people.
Studies also reveal that we properly hear only around 25% to 50% of what is said to us. Out of a 10 minute conversation, you may be getting only 2½ to 5 minutes of useful information. Whilst that may be sufficient to grasp the general thrust of the conversation, it still leaves 50% to 75% that has passed you by. The potential for important details to be missed is therefore significant.
In a way, the importance of listening hardly needs explaining. No one can live in this modern world and not understand the need to communicate with other people. It is not the importance of listening that really requires stressing; it is the misconception that listening is easy and happens by default. All human relationships, from the most personal that we enjoy with our partner and children, through those we have with friends and our more extended family, to those that occur in our work life, and those we experience with mere acquaintances – all these relationships are based on our ability to communicate effectively.
One of the most common complaints following any failed personal relationship is that the other party didn’t listen, or that there was a lack of understanding, which amounts to the same thing. When a person appears to be listening but fails to truly understand what is being said and where the other person is coming from, this is because listening has not really taken place – not the active listening that matters.
Human beings are social creatures. Not only is communication unavoidable, it is truly desirable. We crave interaction as a means of enlivening our time on this earth, and because it keeps us (relatively) sane. It allows us to express our emotions – our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows – and share them with other people who we think may be interested, or who may be able to help us make sense of them. But when we speak, there has to be someone listening for it to have any point.
In simple terms, speaking is one person reaching out, and listening is another person accepting and taking hold. Together, they form communication, and this is the basis of all human relationships. This being the case, it is crucial that the listener is truly listening with a view to offering constructive feedback. How catastrophic would it be if a depressed individual called a helpline and after fifteen minutes pouring out their heart, the listener said: “Uh-huh. What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening, tell me again.” A failure to listen can create immense hurt, if not genuine damage.
Active listening tells the speaker that what they have to say matters. It creates a sense of confidence that advice is at hand; advice that will be considered and useful. A listener is a sounding board that allows the speaker to develop thoughts that may, up to that moment, have been difficult to clarify.
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