Listening A Hot Topic

Listening is a topic that’s been getting frequent attention in recent weeks. I suspect the reason is that fewer and fewer people listen closely to anyone or anything anymore. In a 24/7-connected world, more and more people are multitasking nearly all their waking hours. Or, more accurately, they’re attempting to multitask, which studies have shown isn’t, in fact, productive.

In my experience it’s been obvious that people on conference calls are often checking their phones and emails, reviewing papers on their desks, and answering questions from direct reports and co-workers instead of paying attention to the meeting discussion, not to mention participating in it! And some workshop attendees are on their laptops much of the time, purportedly taking notes but often working on their own projects.

Listening–truly listening, by giving someone your undivided attention–is an increasingly rare practice that many seem not to value highly. As a communication consultant whose entire career has focused on written and verbal interaction, this is very disconcerting. If we don’t listen carefully to one another, how we will ever reach learn waht we need to know? How we will ever reach an understanding of what we’re doing, where we’re going, what we need, what we want, etc.

So imagine how pleased I was to see today’s article in The Wall Street Journal that says focused listening is among the behaviors that conveys intelligence to others. Sue Shellenbarger reports that “a lot of people do things that make them look dumb” (such as using big words or looking very serious) when they’re trying to look smart. The people they’re trying to impress read these efforts as trying too hard, so the attempts to look smart actually have the opposite effect.

To look smart, the first thing a person needs to do is this: Put away the phone and look directly at the person you’re speaking to! According to Nora A. Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in L.A. who’s conducted a number of studies on the subject, the other behaviors that convey intelligence are sitting up straight, speaking clearly in “a pleasant voice,” displaying self-confidence, and actually engaging in a conversation. Some of the ways to do that, says Suzanne Bates, chief executive of Bates Communications in Wellesley, Mass., are indicating you understand the person’s point, asking questions and being willing to hear another’s point of view.

Who knows? By actively listening, people may learn more than they ever imagined, all the while seeming more intelligent than ever. So what have you got to lose? Put down that phone, get away from email–and start listening!

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