Improve Your Listening & Communication Skills

DenaDecember 4, 2009

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Fact: Human beings can understand 1200 words per minute; yet most people only speak at a rate of 300 words per minute.

Fact: Only 7% of what you say is conveyed through the words that you use.

Fact: 80% of the conversations that adults have are the wrong conversations.

Your ability to communicate is one of the most crucial elements of your self. Good communication can lead to meaningful personal and professional relationships. On the other hand, poor communication can ruin your life. Today I want to share some information that will transform the way that you communicate and if implemented properly, improve your life.

Effective listening is crucial.

Often times, when people think about the word communication, images of speaking, writing, emailing, and texting come to mind. However, giving information is not the most important aspect of communication, listening is. Becoming a great listener is the only way that you can become a great communicator.

The Rate Gap
So why is it so hard to listen anyway?

A fact that most people do not realize is that most people speak at about 300 words per minute. However, we understand and interpret at about 1200 words per minute. That leaves a 900 word blank space open in your mind. That is a huge “rate gap” between what you are actually hearing when a person speaks to you and what your mind is actually craving to hear. So how do we fill that gap? We fill it subconsciously and that is where our problems begin.

The rate gap leaves us open to boredom. Our subconscious mind starts acting for us. We fidget, play with the change in our pockets, think about other things, stare out the window, and sometimes even zone the speaker out completely. (We do lots of things subconsciously, take breathing for example. It just happens. If we had to think about breathing a lot of us probably wouldn’t be here right now!) Subconscious action is not anyone’s fault. You are not trying to be rude and the speaker is not trying to be boring. So how can you fix it? You’ve got to fill the rate gap consciously.

Next time you are listening and your mind starts to wander, be aware. Fill the gap consciously, take notes on what the other person is saying (mental or written); ask clarifying questions; observe the speaker’s body language and pay attention to your own. Making this simple change while listening will greatly improve your ability to listen. The speaker will appreciate your attention and you will retain much more of what he or she is saying. (…And we all know how important that can be when your wife is giving you a grocery list or your boss listing off tasks.) This method will improve your personal and professional relationships.

Active Listening vs. Passive Listening
There is an enormous difference between hearing and listening. A lot of people seem to think that just because you hear what a person is saying, that that implies that you are listening. That is completely wrong. Think back to your high school algebra teacher, as she was standing in front of the classroom, writing equations on the chalk board, and going on and on and on… You “heard” sound coming out of her mouth, but you did not actually “listen” (understand or interpret) a word of it.

In order to truly listen, you must actively listen. There are three important steps to active listening:

1. Paraphrase (with empathy) – Echo the speakers words and ideas. Let him or her know that you are listening and that you understand.
2. Ask clarifying questions – Ask questions that will help you to truly understand the speaker’s message.
3. Summarize – When the speaker has finished speaking, summarize what he or she has said. State the next steps if follow-up is required.

Example: If your wife has just asked you to take out the trash because her back hurts, say something like, “Thank you for making this clear to me. I am sorry that your back hurts. I will take the trash out this evening before we sit down to watch television.” Repeating what she has said will make her feel great because she will know that you were listening. The repetition of her words will also help you create a mental reminder to yourself to get the job done.

Practicing active listening will improve your personal and professional relationships by leaps and bounds.

Body Language
It’s true, when you think about every single conversation that you’ve ever had, only 7% of what you said was conveyed through the words that you used. About 55% of communication is conveyed through body language, while 38% is based on voice inflection & tone, and only a tiny 7% is conveyed through the words that we use.

Body language is hugely important. While you may not realize it as you are speaking (and listening) the things that you do with your body mean a lot more than the words that come out of your mouth. Human beings are extremely sensitive creatures. We subconsciously notice all sorts of things. Simply by crossing your arms while someone is speaking to you can alert him that you are not open to what he is saying.

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There is a lot to keep in mind when it comes to body language. Body language is a very pwerful tool in your “communication” toolbox.

Maintaining good eye contact shows that you are interested and engaged with what a person is saying.

Posture is very important. Slouching and leaning can express disinterest or frustration. Chin up and shoulders back shows attention and confidence.

Your arms are a good way to indicate your comfort in a given situation. The more open your arms, the more receptive you will seem. However, if you are a large/intimidating person, be careful that you do not come off as aggressive. And likewise if you are a small/timid person, make sure to be open enough to appear strong and capable.

Finally, pay attention to the angle of your body and the distance that you keep between yourself and others. Angling yourself toward a person shows interest. At the same time, be sure to keep a mutually comfortable distance between yourself and the other person.

Note that these rules are not set in stone and your body language should vary according to the situation. There are some excellent books on the topic should you be interested.

Your tone and inflection is also an important aspect of your body language. Avoid sarcasm (unless you know that the person is a fa
n of it). Avoid messages with hidden meanings. Simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say can be the best method for getting your point across. Remember that it is easy to remain rational in rational situations. The challenge is to remain rational in irrational situations. This takes practice, but with time and effort you can do it. When necessary, rely on the old – stay calm, breathe, count backward from ten.

You are Having the Wrong Conversations
Yes, 80% of the conversations that adults have are the wrong conversations. It happens because we try to treat problems before we diagnose them. Let’s look at an example.

You are Mary’s supervisor. Every single Friday afternoon at 3 o’clock she comes into your office and has a fit. Last week it was because the other departments were leaving colored paper in the copy machine. This week she is screaming because her coworker left coffee grinds in the coffee machine and she had to clean them up. How do you fix this problem?

a. Offer to clean up the grinds
b. Suggest creating a coffee committee
c. Ask Mary to gather herself, be an adult, and trash the grinds

Answer: None of these are correct. If you so much as mention the coffee grinds, you are having the wrong conversation. Mary has a problem. She is in your office every Friday. You can fix the coffee situation, the copier situation, and any other gripe that she may have; but she will be in your office next Friday. You’ve got to get to the heart of the problem. Perhaps Mary is feeling undervalued. Perhaps she is having problems at home and dreads the weekends. Whatever it is, get to the root and treat it.

In order to effectively communicate and have the right conversations, you’ve got to use complete messages. There are three parts to complete messages:

1. The facts. Mary is in your office every Friday. There is something bothering her and it has nothing to do with coffee grinds or copy paper.
2. The impact. Your work and mood are being effected by her tantrums. Most likely the real issue is impacting her in a major way.
3. The wants/needs. What does she want and need to resolve this situation.

By communicating with complete messages you can get to the bottom of most situations in a much more productive manner.

Change Your Life
In order to be happy and to grow, we must experience meaningful relationships – both in our personal and professional relationships. Effective communications skills will make your relationships more meaningful. Whether you are looking to improve your marriage, get promoted at work, or to become more confident around strangers – these tips will work. It will take some time and commitment, but you can do it.

If you’ve got specific questions about how you can become a better communicator or if you’ve got your own great communication tips, let me know in the comments.

Comments (4)

  • Mike Stenger

    December 4, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Great post Dena! People definitely underestimate listening and communication when it's one of the single most important things in your life.

    If we want to be successful, we've got to talk to people. If we want to build relationships, we've got to listen. There's a saying that goes something like "There's a reason why we have two ears and mouth: Listen twice as much as you talk."

    Overall, you shared some great information. I especially liked your tips on body language as that's something that is very underestimated as well. It works mostly unconsciously but is super powerful.

    Deserves a RT 😉

  • Tim Brownson

    December 5, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Dena, you make some good points, especially about active listening and engagaing in the wrong conversations.

    Some of the body language tips the ezine article links to are hoplessly inaccurate though.

    The whole purpose with body language is establishing a baseline because we are all different.

    For example, many people actually have a tendency to make eye contact more when they are lying in an attempt to seem sincere. Some people naturally cross their arms even when they are not being defensive and some very sincere people find it physically painful to maintain eye contact.

    If you don't know how somebody already reacts in any given sitaution, trying to read their body langauge from scratch is incredibly hit and miss even for 'experts'

    Your post was way better than the one you linked to btw.

  • Dave Doolin

    December 6, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I just tried to retweet this article (which is very good by the way) using the TweetMeme button.

    It didn't work!

    I'm not sure why, but you should know in case someone else has a problem too.

  • Dena

    December 6, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    @Mike – Thank you so much! I am really glad that you enjoyed the post. Communication is so important and it's really good for us to brush up on our "skills" once in awhile. 🙂

    @Tim – Thanks so much for the feedback. After your comments, I decided it was necessary to make a few edits. I think it's much better know. Hope you'll agree!

    @Dave – Hmm.. I just tested it out and it seemed to go through. I also see that there were 8 RTs. I am thinking that maybe the service was down for a minute. I hope it's back up.

    Thanks so much for trying to share the post. I really appreciate it.

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