Listening To Understand

Listening is arguably one of the most difficult skills in communications, and we’re getting worse at it.  In 2006, Dr. Ralph Nichols – who established the first study in the field of listening nearly 40 years ago at the University of Minnesota – quantified that we spend 40 percent of our day listening to others, but retain just 25 percent of what we hear. By 2011, sound expert Julian Treasure, in his TED talk “5 Ways To Listen Better,” found in his own research that we now spent as much as 60 percent of our day listening to others, perhaps because “it’s a louder and louder world.”

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say”


First, a study at Princeton University (“Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication,” by Charles G. Gross, June 19, 2010) found that there is a lag between what you hear and what you understand. Depending upon the individual, it could be between a few seconds to up to a minute. This is where the trouble starts. During that lag-time, we start to listen to ourselves and not to the other person. As a result, our comprehension plummets.

Why causes this lag time? It might be something as simple as our physical and emotional state. But more likely, it’s our own thoughts and opinions, which is specifically known as confirmation bias, which is our tendency to pick out facts or aspects of a conversation that support our pre-existing beliefs, values or perceptions. Grandma Eklund said it more concisely: “You’re only listening for what you want to hear.”

Confirmation bias is arguably connected to how slow people speak vs. how fast we listen. The Harvard Business Review (“7 Tips for Effective Listening” by Tom D. Lewis and Gerald Graham) cite research which say most individuals speak at a rate of 175 to 200 words per minute, where people are very capable of listening and processing words at a rate of 600 to 1,000 per minute. Because the brain isn’t using its full capacity when listening, the brain drifts off to other questions.

“Friends are those rare people who ask how you are, and then wait to hear the answer..”

John Lennon

“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’!”


This phenomenon is called Miller’s Law, after psychologist George Miller who said in 1980 that “In order to understand what another person is saying, you have to assume that (their answer) is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”  Miller found that many people apply this principle in reverse, or what’s known as competitive listening. They hear something and have a negative reaction, because they believe what the other person said is false.  Listening stops, and communications breaks down.

Of course, there are other culprits. The speaker can also cause the delay in listening, because of the volume, pace, tone or accent of their voice, their non-verbal communications (gestures, eye contact, among others). Then there’s outside interruptions too, either technical (phones, gadgets, emails, squawk boxes used for conference calls) or physical (noise, an uncomfortable or too-comfortable chair).

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