Photo by  Cayla1  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cayla1 on Unsplash

I sat at my kitchen table. where I was eating breakfast, staring, dumbfounded, at the woman, whom I did not know, who had just burst into the house. She saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” “I live here, it’s my house.” I stammered, vexed at her demanding tone, and surprised by her brashness. Afterwards, as she stomped out, I knew she had “heard my words,” but really wasn’t listening and certainly didn’t get the point.

What is the problem?

  • Parents know that if they can get their kids to listen they can provide valuable guidance.

  • Teacher’s know that if students listen they will learn, grow, and be inspired.

  • Doctor’s know that if patient’s listen their health can be improved.

It’s obvious, the problem, often, is getting people to listen. Isn’t it? So, based on this belief, parents spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get kids to hear what they say; teachers continually train, and plan, and work to help kids learn; and Doctor’s worry about compliance with their recommendations and helping patients heed their advice. Yes, getting others to listen is a problem . . . but often it it’s not the right focus and certainly it’s not just for kids, students, and patients!

Yes, getting others to listen is a problem, but . . . and here is a big but . . . it’s the good listeners (parents, teachers, and doctor’s) who have the most influence on those they are trying to “get to listen.”

Too often, Communication is handicapped, not by the intentions or efforts of the listener—as if patient's want to have bad health, students want to remain ignorant, or kids want to make bad life choices—but because of a basic human error of “attribution.” In other words, the “expert”—parent, teacher, doctor—assumes that they are independent from the problem, and therefore, the problem must be the other person. Those doggone “others” are, it is assumed, just not properly motivated—they are willful, distracted, resistant. But, in reality, the experts tell us that people are always motivated . . . by something . . . it may be to avoid conflict, feel less stress, get attention, have less work and more fun . . . or something else that impedes their performance. Yet, even when people say they trying to listen and understand, rarely, are they “simply” motivated to really listen.

Listening, often shows up in lists as a critical skill for those trying to influence others but rarely is it a skill that’s value is demonstrated by tenacious practice or active training of this particular skill. But, then again, remember, most of us think we possess this skill and the speaker may not be anymore aware of their lack of motivated listening than the person they are trying to help. The truth is, communication is harder than people think it is and they are often unaware that the real problem is their own poor listening and communication skills.

An Example

As I said, in my three decades of working with people, I find that secretly, most people—no, not all, but most—believe that they are at least adequate or even good listeners and thus have few communication problems. But the reality just does not bear this out. Give someone a random sequence of data, say numbers to keep it simple, and ask them to repeat them . . . “59387274” . . . most people will struggle. It’s not a memory thing. It’s attention, emotion, and a lack of skill. Give them a “grocery list” of 18 items, with one repeated 3 times, and 60% and 75%, respectively, will remember the first and last item; 80% will remember the item repeated three times; almost no one gets the whole list correct; and, interestingly, a full 20% will include a common grocery item (like bread) that wasn’t on the list at all!

Now ask these same listeners to listen to and remember (track) complex information . . . in an emotionally charged environment . . . and their performance will drop even more precipitously. Oh, they’ll may the major point(s). But they’ll miss significant information related to the context of the conversations and the more subtle details that make the difference between “hearing” and “understanding.” Without that high level of understanding, their strategies to get others to listen and influence them are more likely to fail.

By contrast, if you run into an exceptional listener, you may not overtly label that expertise, but you will know it . . . because you leave conversations feeling really heard and understood. You may even find yourself starting to soften toward their views when expressed. Not a common experience.

So, why don’t we listen better? Why does communication often break down? Here are five common reasons.

5 Reasons Communications Fail

1. We don’t value listening. To be honest, few people are there to really listen they are to tell. "Waiting your turn to speak." Listening is work. Telling is, often, easy and many times fun. Listening requires effort and may cause us to reconsider our position. Listening can lead to genuine conflict, recognizing we have differences with the speaker where telling may gloss over those divisions. However, telling often leads to conflict over “surface issues” instead of real divisions. Listening promotes griping and dissatisfaction.

2. We are impatient or assume listening is a simple process. “I heard you,” we often state, at the very moment the other person is not feeling heard. We don’t recognize the miscommunication when constructs are not defined and assumptions about the meaning of words (think “hose”) are made.

3. Our minds are already made up and our attitudes stink. “I don’t need to listen. I already know what they are going to say.” Ever hear that one? How condescending that must feel to people whose future thoughts and verbalizations are redacted to simple characters as if they cannot have independent or unique thoughts or change their opinions. Nonverbals often signal true intent—and it is often not a “posture of wanting to hear.”

4. We just don’t get it. The people with the highest need for improvement—the poorest communicators—often are the least aware that they need new skills. Often they have a general lack of emotional intelligence. For example, one morning I was sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast. A woman, whom I did not know, burst into the house, saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” (I must pause to say we lived in a very small community, so knocking and entering among friends is not uncommon.) “I live here, it’s my house.” I replied, vexed at her demanding tone. “Where are Jim and Elna?” she demanded. “We bought the house from them, six months ago, and they moved across town.” I stated, feeling a rising irritation over her brazen attitude. “Why did they do that?” She quiried. “I guess you’d have to ask them.” I pointed out. “Humpf” she snorted, turned, and walked out. There was no apparent embarrassment at having burst into my home or interrupting my breakfast. No awareness that cross-examining me about my presence in my own home may have been “over the top.” No apology for her mistake. Nothing. Just verbal demands and then, a swift exit. I found out later that I had just “met” a woman who was infamous in our town for her poor social behavior. Not surprised. It’s the same principle as “you only need fences with bad neighbors who, likely, don’t think you need fences” in other words, good neighbors respect your property for the others, you need fences.

5. There is no focus on skill building. If I “played around” every day on my piano would I become a skilled piano player? No, I would not. Maybe someone with a true musical “gift” could learn this way but an average person would gain some skill . . . but never become a master. Because people “dabble” everyday with communication many come to believe they have expertise. Repetitive misunderstandings, conflict, communication failures of various types does nothing to challenge this fallacy. To master a critical skill, be must engage in intentional and focused practice not just “play around.” Few—outside those whose training, education, or interest in communication—have undertaken this challenge.

Organizational Learning

One of the most fun activities we do as consultants—and what our client’s have identified as the highest impact exercises we do with teams—is to have the workteams attempt to complete a task or game that relies almost entirely on communication. One example is having the team deactivate a live “bomb” where a team member is the only one who can see and manipulate the bomb while other team members can only access the manual that explains how defuse the armament. The only way to succeed constantly at this task is to communicate well. The team quickly becomes aware of the difficulty of communication and how their conditioned behaviors—even if well intentioned—can cause the team to fail. With each round, we tease out the assumptions, defenses, and behaviors that impede the team’s performance—including team members who are not actively participating in the solutions.

This process of game-playing, typically creates a “low-threat” environment, The perception that “it’s just a game,” can lower apprehensions about engaging as a team (in front of peers and often with the bosses in the room) and this then sets the team up to talk about their real strengths and also the growth areas they need to focus on as a team. Peers often identify strengths in other team members. Individuals, themselves also self-identify their own strengths and often even publicly state their own need for growth in a particular area.

The critical factor here though is not “raising awareness” or even “teaching” it is having the teams experience and practice the skills. Afterwards, they will need continued repetitions of practicing the skills to make this a habit leading to reliable and sustainable success . . . but it is incredibly fun to be there as it begins and to promote this skill development as they begin to experience deeper listening and better communication.

Enjoy this? Let us know it helps us target content to what you want. If you liked this you might want to check out our post on the proper relationship of mistakes and learning.

P.S. — Do we use “P.S.” anymore? Two things. One, if you have questions about how to help your team feel free to contact us. Two, if you are a professional “people person” and want to learn about using games in training, we occasionally do free trainings on our process. Let us know if you are interested.