What comes to mind when you think of communication skills. Things like public speaking, clarity and tone of voice, and the ability to organize your thoughts into a logical manner are probably typical. If you are thinking about oral communication, then this would include the pacing of your speech along with the tone of your voice. If you are thinking about written communication, then this would include word usage, sentence length and formatting.
But this is only half of communication.
The other half of communication is in listening. In order to speak, you need listeners. In order to write you need readers. In order to create art you need a catered event for people to stand back and go “Hmmm…”
Listening is the other half of communication, but it is so often neglected. Most of us want to become better speakers or writers, not better listeners or readers. Most of us think that being a good listener is to be courteous and polite, it is for the benefit of the speaker, not for ourselves.
Many people think of Toastmasters as a way to improve your speaking skills, but I would argue that it is an even better way to improve your listening skills. Depending on the size of the club, you will likely be listening far more than you will be speaking. The ability to pay attention and understand may not have the prestige and glory of giving a speech, but it is just as valuable (if not more so).
The true value of listening, however, isn’t for the speaker at all. It is for the listener themselves. Being able to understand and gather the ideas of others allows us to add them to our own. Gathering new ideas, new beliefs and new perspectives greatly enhances our own. Even if you disagree with someone, adding their perspective to yours allows you a greater understanding of reality.
Why don’t people value listening? I think there are multiple answers to this question and I think they all come into play for us at some time or another.
Arguably the biggest reason we like to speak more than listen is because we would rather persuade than be persuaded. In order to truly listen, we have to open ourselves up for the possibility of being persuaded. This represents a subtle threat to our own worldview. Any time we come across information that conflicts with our worldview, our instinct is to try to push it away. As a result, we would much rather speak and reinforce our worldview, then listen and create the potential for it to change.
Unfortunately having a closed mind, desperately trying to avoid changing our perspective is going to cut us off from many options, and greatly impair our understanding of reality. In this case, we need to fight the temptation to shut off any voices that might disagree with us and listen to them. These voices might very well be offering the perspectives we need.
This is one of the main causes of arguments. People argue because they are adamant on speaking their views but refuse to listen. If you’ve ever heard Democratic and Republican party members debate on a news program it is almost ridiculous. Everyone is quickly trying to speak in their side of the story, often interrupting the other members.
Here’s a tip when you get in an argument. Try listening. Usually when you truly listen to someone, the other person usually calms down when they realize they don’t have to yell to get your attention. Empathy is usually the antidote to hostility.
Even in situations where we agree with the speaker, we often value speaking over listening. These situations can often be caused when the ideas that match create ever-increasing enthusiasm until everyone is trying to speak at once. This is more common in a large group, where several people are each vying to share their thoughts.
In these cases we are often so worked up over our ideas that we neglect listening in an attempt to share them. Being able to work in an orderly fashion, between listening and talking will ultimately work better than trying to yell them all at once. It might even be necessary to use an object to designate who gets to speak. That way it would be easier to divide the speaking evenly between all of the members involved.
One of Steven Covey’s seven habits in his best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, was entitled “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This simply means that we need to focus on listening, before we try to speak. Most people would really like to just have someone to listen to their thoughts. Speaking and informing can only be successful after that.
Communication, if we look at it more broadly than just the act of auditory speaking and listening, can also be used to represent businesses. Businesses are profitable because they sell products or services. Therefore, the best businesses are the best speakers, aren’t they?
But this isn’t entirely true. In order to successfully sell a product or service, you need to know what people want. You need to know what people want and need to buy. Furthermore, you need to be extremely sensitive to the thoughts and ideas of your customers. In other words, the best businesses are (or at least used to be) excellent listeners.
Marketing guru, Seth Godin, explains this so well when he writes:
“Two things marketers do:
1. Do the work necessary to be sure that your perception of the world is similar to the world as it is.
2. Create the stories (and the experiences to back them up) that change the world as it is.
Most marketers fail at #1. By focusing on what they want, or by having a selfish view of things, they miss the reality of what the world believes.”
Basically Seth is describing the process of listening and speaking. Realizing that you have to understand before you can market anything illustrates it.
In other words, in order to be a good speaker, you have to be a good listener. You need to be able to listen to other people and understand their needs, desires and ideas. If you refuse to listen then you cannot be a good speaker. In fact, you will likely be a horrible speaker.
Where does this leave me? Does it seem rather hypocritical to be writing a post on the value of listening over speaking? While I don’t profess to be the worlds greatest listener (or speaker) I have been able to respond to every comment that has been posted on my blog so far. Furthermore, given the large volume of blogs and books I read, I’d say I get a lot of practice in trying to understand others opinions, even when they disagree with mine.
So how can we become better listeners. With all things, listening is a skill that can be developed with practice. Being able to pick up on subtle pieces of body language or tones in voice are arguable not nearly as important as simply putting the effort into listening. Most of us could be better listeners if we just bothered to try. Sensitize yourself to opportunities for improving your listening. I think the world could be a lot more open and caring place if more people were actually listening.