Being “All Ears” Isn’t the Solution

“It takes a great man to be a good listener.” – Calvin Coolidge

Last week I found myself at a meeting where conversation continually circled back to the original topic of the discussion. The group’s dialogue went something a bit like this:

“Jocelyn, did you get my email that included the revised proposal?”

“I did. I’m not sure if we are going to be able to get everyone on board with the changes.”

“Hold on, you guys, before we discuss this, I think we need to address the issues with funding that John mentioned earlier.”

“Great point. Okay, so let’s take a look at those. Do we have any type of strategy to make sure we receive those funds?”

“Well, I actually mentioned something about that in the revised proposal.”

“Oh, you did? Then I guess we can take a look at that.”

Nothing was being accomplished, and it was apparent that everyone was on a different train of thought. I sat there and couldn’t help but wonder where the breakdown in communication had occurred—we had been here for almost an hour and had yet to reach any resolution.

Meetings with no resolutions. We’ve all been there a time or two, right?

The issue wasn’t that ideas weren’t being communicated effectively. The issue was that no one was listening. Sure, we were all sitting at the table. Some of us were even taking notes on our laptops or jotting down thoughts in the margins of our planners. We were there, but we weren’t fully present.

Here’s the issue: science tells us that conversation flows at about 125 words per minute. Our brains, however, are processing at over 500 words per minute. This leaves us with a large gap of mental time to let our minds wander elsewhere and insert our own opinions and perceptions of where the conversation should go.

If you’re anything like me, you’re mentally writing the reply to that email your coworker just sent, contemplating dinner options, and reminding yourself to send your mom’s birthday card. Maybe even all of the above at once.

Or maybe you’re crafting your argument in response to the speaker. I mean, come on, do they really think that idea will actually work?

So how do we combat our poor listening skills? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t be doing: multitasking.

Instead, use the time to develop a paraphrase of the speaker’s message or clarifying questions. This will not only allow the speaker to build upon their message and offer clarity, but will ensure that you remain focused on the conversation at hand.

Communication experts suggest utilizing nonverbal cues and movement, or responsive sounds, such as “mhm” or “really?” in conversation. Verbal and nonverbal responsiveness help your mind stay engaged.

We need to remember that just because our ears are hearing, doesn’t mean our minds are understanding and truly following the trajectory of conversation.

The more we practice mindful listening, the more effective conversations and meetings will be. Our quality of conversation will be drastically improved, decisions will be made more efficiently, and errors due to misunderstanding will decrease.

Trust me, dinner plans and the belated birthday card to your mom can wait.

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