“I hear you, but…”
How many times have we caught ourselves saying this to a colleague, or our child or our spouse? Are we really listening to what they’re saying or simply hearing while we wait impatiently to have our say?
I remember when I started practicing coaching; there was this moment, during my first session as a coach when I realized the importance of listening and the power of silence. Before starting the session, I took a moment to bring my awareness towards the person that I was going to coach. I reminded myself to be fully present and attentive to my client. Not long after, about mid-session, I found myself completely “blocked” with no idea of what to ask or do next. There was silence. My client had stopped talking and was now staring at me awaiting a reaction. My mind was still hung up on a question that I was trying to formulate, based on something he had said five minute ago, and I had no clue what else was said after that. I was embarrassed and felt pressured to say something, keep the conversation going, yet I was clueless as of what to say next.
I remained silent for a little longer while exploring options in my mind; and that’s when, unprompted, the client started talking again. I could sense the profoundness of the thoughts that were emerging. This time I looked at him, quieted my own thoughts, stopped concerning myself with what my next “power question” would be and started really listening to the person in front of me. It seemed like that moment of silence, as unwanted and frustrating as I felt, had actually offered both of us an amazing opportunity. For my client, the silence allowed him to search within himself for a deeper meaning; and for myself, it helped me to recognize that I’ve been hearing without listening for more than 30 minutes and allowed me to become truly present.
When listening, we use, on average, about 25% of our brain capacity
We spend about 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours involved in some sort of communication. Of that time, 55 percent is spent writing, reading and speaking, and 45 percent listening. Some would argue that this is quite a good and healthy ratio. But here is the catch; listening is closely linked to speaking and thinking.
As a general rule, we think faster than we speak. Most people speak at an average rate of 125 words/minute, while our brains - when used at the maximum capacity is capable of understanding up to 400 words/minute (more than triple the rate of anyone talking to us). So what happens in our brain when we’re listening to an average speaker?
According to various studies; while listening, we only use 25 percent of our brain capacity while the remaining 75 percent is free to wander. Whether about different thoughts in your brain or about what to say next or what you said previously. Have you ever found yourself saying “I’m listening…” while receiving a blank stare from your conversing partner? You most probably were listening, but your mind had enough “free disk space” to also think about something else.
We retain about a fourth of what we hear
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re attending a business conference. You’re sitting now at a table, in a nice conference room, listening to a 10-minute presentation on a topic you’re highly interested in and delivered by a fantastic speaker. Studies reveal that, despite your high interest and personal motivation, during these 10 minute, on average, you would have heard and understood about 50 percent from what has been said. Fast forward to 48 hours after the conference, you are now enthusiastically sharing the information you received during this presentation with you colleagues at work. The same studies conclude that by now you would, on average, be able to remember about 25 percent of what has been said.
In other words, we retain about a fourth of what we hear. So what can we do to enhance our listening? And what is the role of silence in all this?
CONSCIOUS LISTENING and SILENCE
When we listen, actively and consciously, we open the door to understanding. And understanding enables us to explore wonderful new possibilities and ideas.
Silence is an essential part of active listening and a powerful tool in itself. In one seminar I recently attended, I came across a simple yet great exercise that involved remaining silent. It’s a wonderful practice that helps participants quiet their minds, become more aware of their surroundings and reset their focus and ears in order to embark into the journey of learning. On the first day of training, when exposed to this practice for the first time, one could hardly ignore the surprised look on our faces. The unspoken questions “Why are we doing this when we’re here to learn about… [something extremely HR technical]?” At the beginning of the second day of training, I decided to stop questioning and trust the process. By the third day, I was really looking forward to experiencing the 2 minutes of uninterrupted silence. It felt as if we could take a moment to put our thoughts into order and become more grounded into the here and now. Surprisingly, throughout the course, though we used to spend more than 9 hours learning something completely new, we all agreed that we felt engaged and energized. And this is not to say that the merit goes only to the practice of silence every morning, but it did play a major role and helped us become better listeners.
SILENCE has become a “luxury” in the modern world
Silence is now being analysed and discussed in a multitude of disciplines from psychology to interpersonal development, to meditation and mindfulness. It has become a “luxury” for the modern world. Although, when it happens naturally, we come across a pause in our personal or business conversations, we still, too often and too fast, call it “awkward silence”. It’s as if we cannot decide if silence has a positive connotation or a negative one. Or rather, we oscillate between when it is considered acceptable to be silent and when it is not.
But what if we were to decide that silence is our best friend, helping us to become better listeners?
Continuously developing our listening ability
While I don’t believe in prescriptive, guaranteed, or proven methods to achieving enlightenment, I do strongly believe in continuous learning and exploration of ideas. Throughout my journey as a professional and as a human being, during the last couple of years, I’ve learned a few lessons about listening and practicing silence, which proved to be valuable and worth spreading. These are just mere ideas, with more or less proven scientific value or basis, although tested and practiced. You could consider them and if you chose to do so, it may build your listening skills while making use of the great gift of silence:
Practice DEEP listening
The truth is that listening is hard work, and deep listening is even harder. It requires conscious effort and practice, but the results are quite remarkable. When practicing deep listening, you are fully present. You put aside your worries, thoughts and assumptions, you quiet your mind and you are there for the other person. You’re listening with a genuine interest driven by your desire to understand. You are listening to exactly what is being said, without adding your interpretation, agreement or disagreement. And equally important, you’re listening to what is not being said – non-verbal cues, pauses, body language, even the energy present in the conversation.
There’s no quick recipe that enables you to tap into deep listening, but it rather starts with a strong sense of self-awareness and a desire to constantly develop. It also needs to be mentioned that it takes a substantial amount of mental energy to listen deeply and it would be rather challenging to expect to be able to practice deep listening all day, every day, in all of your interactions. But it would definitely serve you well to be able to practice it when it really matters.
Adjust your mindset
To put it simply, our minds dictate what we are listening to and what we observe. And this is a topic that has been thoroughly researched. You’ve probably experienced it at some point in your life. For example, you decided to get a new car or a new phone, that you thought was not such a popular choice, only to discover, within days, that many other people have the exact same item. While there’s a chance that suddenly everyone rushed out to buy the same car or phone (if you were a social media influencer for example), it is more likely that you’ve actually started, unconsciously, noticing more and more of the same items around you.
A similar process takes place when we listen to others. It’s a form of “selective listening”. We only hear what we choose to hear or what is convenient and supporting of our point of view. Everything else is consciously or unconsciously discarded. We listen in order to provide ourselves with a link to make the point that we intended to make to begin with.
What we can do is be self-aware of our intentions and thoughts, underlying beliefs, values and even hidden agendas. And to aim, to the best of our ability, to adopt a non-judgmental mindset. It’s easier said than done. But it all starts with self-awareness and acknowledgement and that is within our power.
Silence can come in many shapes and forms when practiced in the context of listening. For us, as HR professionals, silence is a great ally when we conduct interviews. Providing interviewees with a moment of silence, a short pause, at the end of their answer, allows them time to breath, reconsider what has been said or missed and, indirectly invite them to continue talking if they consider there is something else to add. It creates space to think and articulate ideas. Another way to embed silence in our daily practice, be it meetings, interviews or personal conversations, is to address it as a question. Let it sink in for a while.
If we think of the coaching example provided at the beginning of this article, silence was in that case used (unintentionally at the time) in order to “hold the space”. It comes as a part of deep listening because only when you are fully present and holding a non-judgmental mindset that you are able to “hold the space” for someone; and this might include respecting their silence for as long as they need.
Listening is probably one of the skills we use the most on our day to day basis yet some of us are better at this than others. It’s hard work and requires effort, commitment and a genuine desire to understand people. But imagine a world where we don’t listen to one another... So, given the extreme alternative, practicing deep listening and using silence as a friend, suddenly seems to be worth every effort we are willing to invest.