Hearing vs. Listening
Why Hearing is Different from Listening
According to an Ohio University study, the average adult spends about 70% of their waking hours communicating in one form or another. Of that time, 9% is spent writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking, and 45% listening. To reap the full benefits from this 45% of our communication time spent listening, it is critical that we learn how to listen effectively. Most people assume that listening, unlike the learned skills of reading, writing and speaking, is a natural activity… one requiring minimal effort by anyone without physical impairment. But it’s not that simple as listening is a complex activity of partly physical and partly emotional skills.
Hearing is Naturally a Passive and Involuntary Activity.
Anyone with normally functioning ear and brain activities will involuntarily hear sounds of a certain intensity. But we do exercise control over the attention given to the sounds we hear. The person who lives beside a train track may say they never hear the trains. They do in fact hear them, but their nervous system is so accustomed to the sound they can choose to tune it out subconsciously… This is possible because that person controls their thought processes and can choose whether or not to listen.
We all know it is relatively easy to employ selective hearing (sorry mom and dad!) and likewise to tune out sounds around us — if we’re thinking about something else. But even when we really try to listen to someone, our minds often wonder despite our good intentions making it easy to miss much of what was said.
The Physiological Reason
The physiological reason our minds wander, even when we try to listen, is because the human brain is capable of processing words at a much higher speed than a person is able to speak. The average rate of speech for an American is about 125 words per minute; the human brain can process about 800 words per minute. While a speaker’s words enter our brain at slow speed, we continue to think at high speed. So, we have plenty of time to absorb the words we hear and still think of other things at the same time. At first, we can absorb everything the other person is saying, despite our private mental sidetracks. But unless we make a conscious effort to continue to listen, our private sidetracks tend to take over and before we know it we’ve missed some of what is being said because we were absorbed in our own thoughts.
The Emotional Reason
The emotional reason listening is more difficult than simply hearing concerns the nature of those private mental sidetracks. Curtailing them requires energy, discipline, concentration, and motivation to exert an effort of that intensity. Our motivation is determined by our attitude toward the speaker and their message – by how much we care about them. We can’t control the physiological fact that our minds are capable of absorbing words at a much higher speed then we can speak. However, if we care enough about the information the speaker is conveying – or if he or she as a person is important enough to us – we will make the mental and emotional effort necessary to keep our minds clear of extraneous thoughts and really listen.
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To become aware of how intently you must concentrate to really listen to another person try this little exercise with one or several other people.
• Discuss any subject. Before each of you responds to another person, summarize, in your own words, and without notes what the other person has just said – to his or her satisfaction.
• Be particular about the way the other persons summarize what you said. Don’t let them off easily simply because you’re impatient to continue the discussion.
• Did you find it difficult to listen to others in the group? If so, why?
• Did you have trouble formulating your reply and listening at the same time? Why?
• Were you satisfied that you conveyed to the others what you were trying to say?
• How can you tell when other members of the group are listening and when they’re only half listening?
• Did certain members of the group listen more closely than others? Why?
Based on this experience, List speaker’s behaviors that make it easy to listen to them and behaviors that make it difficult to listen.
Communication is always two-way. There must be a sender and a receiver. Working to get better, more deliberate and disciplined at one skill will undoubtedly make you better at the other.