Listen. Pay Attention.

I’m standing in the changing room of the local indoor pool. A group of schoolboys swarms in. Yelling. Screaming.  “I’m the king of the locker room.” “I’m the king of the swimming pool.” “The shower is mine!”  They drum on the benches, kick the lockers, snap towels, finish each others’ sentences. They jostle each other. If words had elbows, the boys would be covered with bruises. I say, “Please keep it down.” One boy says, “Sorry,” then runs into the showers, and howls, ”I am the king of the universe!” The screams intensify. I rush out to the pool and plunge into the water. Silence!

Why did this scene strike me? The boys were poor listeners. They appeared to be listening, but their internal monologue was saying,  “Me, me, me, it’s all about me.”  We talk to ourselves, according to some estimates, at more than 600 words a minute. We dramatize, get caught up in our emotions. Interrupt. Shut down participation. Make assumptions. We don’t pay attention to our own listening behaviors. Seems to me we’re often listening, not to understand, but to reply. So what should we be doing?

  1. Look people in the eye
  2. Paraphrase, clarify: content and feelings
  3. Watch for non-verbal clues
  4. State your views calmly
  5. Keep an open expression
  6. Check assumptions
  7. Summarize twice in a five-minute conversation

Remember: repeating what someone says word-for-word isn’t active listening. It’s what parrots in Key West, Florida can do: parrot-ing!  Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, said, “We have two ears and one mouth so we will listen twice as much as we talk.”  Managers who want to communicate well should heed this advice.