WSJ: You're probably a bad listener. Here's how to be better.

Learn how you can stop 'tuning others out'

Editor's note: This story was updated on January 9, 2018.

Most Americans fail to listen well at work and at home, and we're only getting worse, the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger writes—but there are ways to improve your listening skills.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help you communicate effectively

Shellenbarger cites a 1987 study that found most people only remember 10% of what was said in a face-to-face conversation after a brief interruption.

Sadly, say researchers, our listening skills have probably only declined in the digital age. A 2006 study of college students showed they spent about 24% of their time listening to others in individual or group conversations, down from 53% in 1980.

Being a good listener is important in the workplace: A 2007 study of 3,372 workers in the Academy of Management journal found that managers' listening plays a large role in employee engagement. Specifically, employees who believe their bosses are not listening to them are less likely to offer helpful suggestions and new ideas. They are also more likely to become exhausted and quit, says another study.

However, says Shellenbarger, there are ways to improve listening skills—foremost by being aware of the different ways we "tune others out." For instance, she writes, some people fail to listen properly because they are focused on what they want to say next, while others filter the conversation based on preconceived assumptions or expectations about the other person. Julian Treasure, an author and speaker on conscious listening, compares listening with such filters to "listening from a kind of concrete bunker."

In addition, some people listen in a "critical" way or only long enough to decipher whether the speaker's view match their own. According to a 2011 study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes the more powerful the listener, the more likely he or she is to be critical of or dismiss advice from others. Further, according to Rockhurst University's Laura Janusik, people no longer try as hard to remember what they hear because "we can always Google it and find it again."

How to be a better listener

Shellenbarger shares the example of Ella Morgulis, a product manager at software firm SAP. Morgulis recently participated in a "mindful listening" exercise at work, where partners took turns focusing for three minutes on their partners' words, body language and emotions without interrupting or reacting, then repeated back what they heard.

According to Morgulis, the exercise of focusing-and-repeating helped her to "absorb things and to get into this calmer state" and to think positive things about co-workers before beginning a meeting. As a result, she says she feels closer to her co-workers and notices that they "go out of their way to help" with projects.

Paul Donehue, president of a sales-management consulting firm, says in order to prepare for an important conversation, you should make a list of everything you want to say or questions you want to ask.

Doing so, Donehue says, "relieves the brain of that burden of thinking about what you're going to say next." He adds, "When the conversational thread comes to a natural end, instead of panicking about where you're going to go next, you have it written down."

Making eye contact and setting a talk-to-listen ratio goal—such as talking 25% of the time and listening 75%—can also be helpful.

Communications skills coach Barbara Miller recommends doing a "brain dump" on paper before a conversation in order to acknowledge the thoughts that could distract you from the conversation. 

If all else fails, says Treasure, remember the acronym RASA:

  • Receive the information by paying attention to the person;
  • Appreciate what he or she has to say;
  • Summarize what the other person said back to him or her; and
  • Ask questions after the conversation is over (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 7/22). 

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