The High Cost of Poor Listening

There are no shortcuts to becoming a great listener and the price tag for poor listening is high. Listening well can reduce misunderstandings while increasing knowledge and delivering better results faster.

By Valarie Washington

At about 3:00 on Thursday, Jack, the division program manager, says to the four members of his team, "Have your proposals ready for discussion by Friday afternoon."

  • Employee 1 arrived with a 5-page typed budget proposal on the department's annual giving campaign.

  • Employee 2 stepped in and told his manager that he thought the proposals were due next Friday.

  • Employee 3 handed Jack two pages of analysis about the giving campaign.

  • Employee 4 greeted Jack with, "I'm glad we're finally going to sit down and talk about this...I have some great ideas about what we can do."

Obviously something went wrong. Were they listening? Was the message clear? Many will say that Jack was not clear in communicating expectations - and this is partially true. But don't underestimate the role of the listener. Whether through verbal or non-verbal cues, it is the listener that actually directs the conversation.

In this example, Jack said what he wanted to say and with no questions, objections or comments he had no way of knowing that there was any disconnection. Well... not until time had been spent and he was still without the important campaign information.

The listener has a responsibility to check in with the person speaking. Not one of the employees asked a question for clarification. Why not? They thought they heard what Jack was saying and understood what he wanted in return. This assumption meant that they got it wrong.

The speaker can have his say but if the listener cannot accurately interpret what the speaker is trying to convey then there is no communication. The best communicator, with great verbal skills, cannot overcome the failure of a poor listener. Dialogue quickly becomes a monologue. Conversely in a conversation between a great listener and a poor speaker, the listener will work with the speaker to draw out and clarify the message.

Think of how many times you have misinterpreted instructions, heard a problem incorrectly, or missed out on business opportunities. Poor listening can lead to challenges in relationships, lack of credibility, lost contacts, inaccurate reporting, rework, dissatisfied customers and lowered productivity.

Did You Know...?

  • It is estimated that more than 50% of our work time is spent listening.
  • Immediately following a 10-minute presentation the average person retains about half of what they hear and only one quarter of what they hear 48 hours later.
  • 60% of all management problems are related to listening.
  • We misinterpret, misunderstand or change 70 to 90% of what we hear.

When misunderstandings occur the implication is that whoever was delivering the message somehow missed the mark, that the speaker didn't deliver a clear message. But, communication is not just what is said - it is what you hear someone saying. Listening is considered the most frequently used but least exercised and effective communication skill.

More Than Words Can Say

We've talked about the listener's role in relation to the speaker but there is a third component of communication -- the message itself. It is said that the 500 most commonly used words in English have over 14,000 different dictionary definitions. As I said earlier, communication is a two-way street but it has many side roads off it.

Using a simple word like "office" filtered through differing:

  • perceptions,
  • assumptions,
  • exposure,
  • experiences,
  • relationships,
  • knowledge,
  • agenda, or
  • attention

might cause one to envision corporate headquarters, cubicles, corner suites with a great view, a position held, a government agency or even a team of workers.

shot between the speaker and the listener. The speaker sends a message that is filtered by the listener and sent back again. If this path continues without clarification and stop points the message becomes muddled and strays further from the original intent. This then means that extra effort will need to be spent in trying to figure out how the message was sidetracked, leading to rising frustration and the loss or distortion of the meaning.

Listening is Priceless

There are no shortcuts to becoming a great listener and the price tag for poor listening is high. Listening well can cut down on misunderstandings, miscues, damaged relationships, missed opportunities and disagreements while building strong alliances, increasing knowledge and delivering better results faster.

To truly listen is priceless because listening is the key to another's thoughts, motivation, and behaviours. When dealing with customers, employees and managers, it is the listener's responsibility to make the adjustments toward understanding. Whether your next interaction is with a customer, a friend, or a colleague, remember how easily a misunderstanding can occur. Focus on the goal of the communication and build toward the message.

The better your listen, the more you allow both people to develop shared meaning, learning, agreement and improved results.

Valarie Washington is CEO of Think 6 Results - a knowledge broker that is passionate about learning and improving performance in organisations. She's a writer, presenter, and executive coach on a mission to get every employee and organisation focused on and thinking about the six business-driving goals that matter.

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