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The #1 Reason We Don’t Listen

“People hearing without listening”

Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence

This is something we all do – everyday. We hear the people around us speaking – family members, co-workers, customers, prospects – but we don’t really listen to what they are saying. Why do we do this?

The answer is actually simple … instead of listening to the other person, we are listening to ourselves. We are paying more attention to the soundtrack in our head, thinking things like:

“Well, as soon as she’s finished this story, I’m going to tell her about the time I …”;

“That’s not right. How could he think that was a good idea. There’s no way we’re going to investigate that solution.”; or

“Gosh I’m tired. I really didn’t sleep well last night at all. I wonder if I can fit in a nap before dinner?”

You get the idea. We get so caught up in our own thoughts, experiences and interests we stop participating in conversation. I recently came across a newsletter I’d been saving for decades because it contained this brief summary of the ways in which we neglect to listen:

Listening to Ourselves Instead of Others

So how do we improve our ability to listen? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple. Like the majority of skills, becoming a great listener is developed with practice, and the use of a few “tricks”:

1. Eliminate distractions: For example, look away from your computer screen when you are on the phone. In person, look directly at the speaker while they are talking to you. When we limit the amount of simultaneaous input our brain receives, it allows us to focus on our chosen task – in this case, listening.

2. Grab a pen and paper: While this technique won’t work at a cocktail party, it’s invaluable during phone conversations and meetings. Taking quick notes (or even doodling) helps us focus. It also allows us to record our thoughts and questions, so we can keep listening instead of trying to remember what we want to say.

3. Stay present – be in the moment you’re in: This is not easy but, with practice, it becomes a life-transforming skill. Remain aware of what you are doing each moment. When you find yourself listening to the thoughts, stories or conversations in your head (something we all do), stop. Go back to listening. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This will become second nature for you over time. All of us can be better listeners if we practice.

In a world where, increasingly, communication is text-based, listening will become a much sought-after art and skill. It is the very foundation of communication. Don’t neglect it.

And, for the fun of it , here’s a link to Simon and Garfunkel performing Sound of Silence in Central Park in 1981.

Enjoy your phone work everyone!

11 thoughts on “The #1 Reason We Don’t Listen”

  1. Uh oh, I’m guilty of being all of those types of listeners. I find the paper and pen suggestion works great for me – I have a desk littered in notes!

    • Yes, paper and pen works for me as well, Linda. I use a notebook that is always open on my desk, date the page each day and then scribble away. This helps me find “notes” when I need them. I’ve tried lots of other “systems” over the years, but this one seems to work best for me.

  2. I love your blog tonight Mary Jane. The art of listening is becoming lost but if everyone makes a concious effort and practices your techniques, communication in today’s busy world will only improve. I had a Manager (years ago) always tell me “Listen to Understand” vs “Listen to Respond” and that has always stayed with me and has helped me focus on Listening.

    • I love this quote, Jon. Yes, we must listen to understand, learn, grow relationships. I’ll share this with everyone next week.

  3. Such great information, Mary Jane! It seems to be more challenging for anyone to really listen because our attention is divided so frequently by our cell phones/email, as well. Really listening requires effort that is well worth it – whether for business or personal life. Thanks for sharing.

    • Listening is a challenge, Natasha. We do have more “things” that distract us throughout each day. There is a connection between active listening and meditation … and you and I have talked about how easy it is to meditate! Practice is the key.

  4. I attended two facilitation workshops last year that emphasized the value of listening. For inspiration, great stories, and questions and exercises to help you practice (it really is all about practice, as you say Mary Jane), I recommend one of the titles on the reading list I received there: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott.

    One of the exercises we did in the worshop was to sit and listen actively to another person speak about a problem or difficult situation they were facing without offering any advice or solutions. What surprised me most about the exercise was how relieved I felt while doing it. Sometimes when I “listen” I want to offer solutions and advice—I want to “fix it”—and letting go of that was a relief and a revelation. Listening actively is, in some ways, easier than what many of us tend to do! I try to remember that when I’m “listening” to someone and preparing to speak before they’ve even finished. Something which still happens far too often, I’m afraid.
    : )

    • What a great exercise this is, Dimitra. I’m share your desire to offer solutions, help in some way, so I appreciate your comments very much. Lovely that you discovered relief and revelation. Also, I too am a fan of Susan Scott. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. This is a great post Mary Jane. Having a notebook deskside is a very good strategy.
    I doodle in meetings occasionally and I know some people think I’m not listening when really I am working at listening!
    I also value and enjoy Susan Scott’s books.

    • Thanks, Janet, for your comments. Do share that article in the Globe with your co-workers. They should be following your example of doodling during meetings! And Susan Scott’s books are great. P.S. – the little article in the post is one you gave me many (many) years ago.

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