Guide on the Side - Listen Up - Communications Depends on Learning to Listen

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art.  She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities.


Researchers who measure such things find that most people are poor listeners. Americans are often cited as among the world's worst. Studies from the last two decades consistently show that most of us listen at about a 25% level. That means we miss 75% of the messages people attempt to convey to us. This is true whether the speaker is a boss, employee, client, mentor, doctor, child or spouse. It also means that others miss the point of what we say three out of four times.

Small wonder that listening is considered a top business skill and that the majority of organizations with more than 100 employees offer training in it. Recognition that listening is important is not new. Over a decade ago in 1988, the U.S. Dept. of Labor in a joint project with the American Society for Training and Development identified thirteen areas of development necessary to the "upskilling of worker in America." Listening was identified at the top of this list, second only to "learning to learn." People spend most of the day in some form of communication and the biggest part of it is spent listening. When people don't listen effectively the results are mistakes and misunderstandings as well as stress, tension, friction and lost opportunities.

What is the solution? Listening skills training, which has three dimensions:

Knowledge to understand the process and the dynamics
Practice to develop specific skills
Active attitude to want to do it.

You can begin by self-educating yourself (reading and observation) but eventually you will require structured experiences, modeling and feedback to develop skills and alter your passive attitude. Since listening is such a vital business, professional and life skill, there are a variety of organizations that offer programs or classes on them. The context may differ but the skills are the same. Even a half day session will bring surprising results. Look for classes in these environments:

Professional associations
Continuing education providers
Toastmasters International
Social/civic/religious organizations
Speech coaches
Adult schools
Human resource departments

The first thing you will learn is that listening is not the same as hearing. The key difference between is that hearing is the physiological process of registering sound. It is passive. Listening is hearing plus an understanding of the message, its context and storage for future use. It is an active process. A good example is this parent/child exchange. (Employee/boss or patient/doctor could easily be substituted for the parties.) The parent tells the child not to do something but the child does it anyhow. "Didn't you hear what I told you?" the parent fumes. "Yes, I heard but I didn't listen" the child replies, accurately describing the transaction from her point of view. People often make the assumption that when they tell someone something, the person has listened when actually the person only heard.

In active listening, both the speaker and the listener are engaged throughout several phases. They keep their attention windows open and they:

  • Are aware and alert as to when communication is about to start or is in progress. (Like knowing when to shift from "park" to "drive.")
  • Interpret the context with both their eyes and ears, looking for verbal and non-verbal cues. Is the message urgent? Highly emotional?
  • Give feedback that indicates they are listening via eye contact, facial expression, nodding, body language, simple comments, or supporting questions.
  • Paraphrase the message mentally. Focus on the key concepts and ideas. Concentrate on the message. Relate it to their own experience and opinions.
  • Keep their emotions in control.
  • Respond when the message is complete. Indicate what they are going to do with the message received: Act, question or consider.

When you become expert at active listening, you become a better speaker and presenter as well. You know the process and know what listeners need and want. Not surprisingly, You get an audience to listen to you the same way you get a single person to listen.

  • Pick a time and place where there will be no distractions or interruptions
  • Make eye contact
  • Establish rapport by listening to audience concerns beforehand
  • Say why the message is important "you will want to know this because..."
  • Get "buy in" by asking questions "did this ever happen to you?"
  • Get to the point promptly, tell them what you are going to tell them and why
  • Indicate how long you plan to speak
  • Follow up with a handout, if there are many facts or details
  • Make it clear what you want from the listener(s) at the beginning--action, advice, support, sympathy or change in behavior.

There are several natural blocks to active listening. It is important to understand and minimize them.

  • Humans can listen at twice the speed the average person speaks. People think even faster than they can listen. Listeners' minds wander while waiting for the message to end or speed ahead anticipating the speaker.
  • What someone says often ignites ideas in a listener's minds sending them off on an unrelated stream of imagination.
  • Many speakers amble or take too long to get to the point.
  • If the subject is highly emotional, the speaker may detour around the real issue.
  • Our lives are full of distractions and interruptions.
  • Multi-tasking has become the norm; doing only one thing feels uncomfortable.
  • You can be a good listener in one environment (on the job) and a poor listener in another environment (with your family). You may have the knowledge and skills but your attitude might vary with the setting.

Become familiar with bad habits most of us have and try to avoid them:

  • Pre-judging - "She doesn't know what she is talking about because she is..."
  • Dismissing - "That's unimportant and doesn't relate to me"
  • Identifying - "Oh, yes that happened to me once" and then you tell your story instead of listening to the story the other person started to tell
  • Interrupting with probing questions and comments "Are you sure you backed-up that file?" "When did you do it?" "Show me now."
  • Talking over the other person, often becoming louder to do it.
  • Advising - You solve the other person's problem when he only wanted to share an experience with you.
  • Arguing - Maybe she just wanted some sympathy and you started a debate.
  • Derailing - Changing the subject, telling a joke is an excellent derailleur.
  • Tuning out - "Ho-hum. I've heard this story before" (common in families).

Good listening is the beginning of good thinking and if you don't want to miss out on a lot, remember to:

  • Be ready to listen (if the time and place are not supportive, make a date for when it is appropriate or move to another location)
  • Keep an open mind that suspends judgment until the message is complete
  • Share responsibility for the success of the communication interaction whether you are the listener or the speaker.