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CLEARly, you must listen!
By Jack Pachuta   Printer Friendly Version

The communication skill that is used most often is the one that is taught the least. Here's what I mean. Consider the four main skills that are used on a daily basis: speaking, writing, reading, and listening. If the total amount of time spent communicating is 100%, what is your impression of how much time the average person spends doing each? The answer may surprise you.

In an average day, an individual communicates through the spoken word 30% of the time, via writing 9% of the time, reads 16% of the time, but listens an overwhelming 45% of the time. Although we have all had courses in speaking, writing, and reading, very few people have ever been taught to be an effective listener.

What is it that causes minds to wander and to not really understand what is being said? We speak at the rate of 100 to 140 words per minute. However, we can comprehend 600 to 700 words per minute. This creates a "Communications Gap." Even those of us who have every intention of listening to what is being said find ourselves filling in the gaps. We add our own words to the dialogue because we are able to listen faster than the other person can speak.

To teach people to be better listeners, I've put together a list of active listening habits that, when practiced, make the communications opportunity interactive. These five habits have an acronym: CLEAR. When mastered, they enable an individual to become a "clear" listener, and, therefore, a better communicator.

Habit #1: Clarify
Ask questions. Often, we hold back when we don't understand something because we are concerned that either we will appear to lack knowledge, or will be impolite to the speaker. In reality, open-ended questions serve to increase the effectiveness of the message by filling in the gaps where misunderstanding could occur. Questions beginning with the words Who, What, When, Where, Why and How cannot be answered "yes" or "no" and will, by their very nature, provide additional information. By clarifying the message through questioning, communications is facilitated.

Habit #2: Lead
A listener can be a leader. Through body language and such remarks as "Go on," or "Tell me more," a listener can encourage the speaker to say more. When this occurs, the speaker can clarify his or her own message by elaborating on points that may only have been initially given a cursory overview. An effective listener must know how to get as much information as possible in the easiest possible way.

Habit #3: Encapsulate
At regular intervals, the listener should ensure comprehension by repeating back a shortened version of the message to the speaker in the speaker's own words. This will verify that the listener took good notes and was hearing the words as they were spoken.

Habit #4: Affirm
All of us enjoy being told that our thoughts and ideas are significant. By using words of affirmation such as "That's good!" or "I really like that," we encourage the speaker to expand on the idea, enabling more aspects of the entire message to come to the forefront. Again, with more facts, we can better understand the total meaning of what is being said.

Habit #5: Restate
The final habit of an effective listener is to restate what is being said. This is distinct from Habit #3 because, in this case, the listener uses his or her own words. The reason is simple. The same word can have different meanings to different people.

This I can personally attest to because my wife and I do not speak the same language. You see, my wife is from England. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not speak the same language. For instance, she does not vacuum the carpet, she Hoovers the carpet. She never uses a wrench, but, on occasion, may attempt to cope with a spanner. Flashlights are never used to light up a dark area. However, she will use a torch. And, if you ask her to look under the hood of your car, she may give you a strange look because the hood is what Americans call the top, while the bonnet is the English equivalent of the hood.

The point is simple. If we do not attach the same meanings to the same words, the message will be misunderstood. And, it's common for both sides to feel as if the communications went smoothly when, in reality, their frames of reference were different. Restatement along with clarification will cause these inconsistencies to drop out, enhancing the environment in which communications can take place.

How often have you heard someone demand that it be done ASAP? This acronym, of course, stands for As Soon As Possible, but, as a consultant friend of mine points out, could also mean A Sale Automatically Postponed. To the requester, it may mean "immediately," but to the other person is could mean, "as soon as I can get to it." But, specific dates and times do have the same meaning to everyone. If something is scheduled for a definite point in time, it leaves little room for misinterpretation.

The bottom line is that the listener must take the responsibility to communicate. If he or she does not, listening becomes a passive activity when, for maximum effectiveness, it must be an active skill.

With that in mind, the art of note taking also becomes an integral part of the listening process. Good notes not only create a record, but also enable the listener to organize the content of the message. Speakers will often ramble and deliver a message either backwards or from the center out. By writing down key words and phrases, the listener will be able to make better sense of the details and be able to decipher what the entire content.

Finally, it is essential that the listener not be distracted by the qualities other person's delivery. Sometimes a voice is so unusual or enticing that attention is centered on tone, volume, and pitch rather than on meaning and comprehension. Once again, good notes will help you circumvent this potential problem. The written word will force you to question what is being said and to better evaluate the content.

A way to verify that you are listening for effectiveness is to pretend that you will be required to prepare a report about the communications for someone else. When we assume that a third party is dependent upon our listening expertise, we become better in our listening habits and in our note taking.

As with any skill, listening must be practiced and honed to achieve the best possible results. By becoming a CLEAR listener, you'll find a new dimension to the communications process, which will signal greater success in reaching your objectives.

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