\"2“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.” ― Diogenes Laërtius

My colleague and friend Malcolm Follos has been using this expression in meetings and workshop for years as a way of setting a precedent around ground rules; I have followed suit and can hear myself saying it often too.  However, it is only when I read an article on Medium by a chap called Sean Kim that I sat back and reflected on it more fully.

It is a basic human need to be heard, to feel like you have had your say, to be listened to; but how often does this truly happen for us.  Unfortunately my father passed away a number of weeks ago, those of you that have been through the experience may well be able to empathise with the heightened desire to be truly heard!  So many people have been so generous and so caring, but there are few that have made me feel that I was truly listened to as I shared what happened or the way I was feeling.  Now, that is a selfish emotion driven by very basic needs and feelings, but it has made me reflect, because it is clearly representative of most of our interactions with people.  We are talked at often and properly listened to very seldom!

So what gets in the way?  

We are too clever! According to Kim’s statistics we listen at 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1,000-3,000 words per minute – so that doesn’t help.  In this day and age of readily available information, instant access or on demand we have such a plethora of stimuli that it is very hard to truly focus on one thing at a time.  We have become skilled at multi-tasking (even us blokes) because we have to in order to keep up with the rapidly accelerating treadmill of life.

We have never been taught to listen! As I watch my daughters trundle through the education system I am struck by the lack of focus on some of the very core and basic capabilities that make us successful as well rounded and integrated human beings for example; how to deal with conflict, how to engage people on their terms and certainly how to listen effectively.   I know that there has been much work and effort on the science of listening over recent years and I am sure we have all been exposed to ‘active’ listening ‘, ‘level 2 listening’ or the like.  The fact of the matter is – to really listen to someone requires real energy and effort and is very difficult.

Society recognises and appreciates talkers rather than listeners! Everywhere you look, successful people are ‘talking up’ their story; knowledge or information is power so people are very careful to share it effectively, we are often asked for ‘our opinion’ and rarely do we see someone celebrated for being a great listener.  It is truly an immensely important but underrated skill.

I am sure that we have all met people who have made us feel listened to; sometimes they are great friends and it is deep and meaningful conversation, sometimes they are people we have just met, yet we feel we were the only person that mattered at that moment in time.  You feel wholly and utterly listened to without judgement, no opinions were chipped in, body language and actions were congruent, total and utter immersion in what you are saying and absolute acceptance that what you are saying is valid for you to feel.

I am not the greatest listener in the world and am encumbered by the same challenges we all face – but, being lucky enough to have been listened to as described above,  I do work hard at my ability to listen and there are 4 things that I focus on when I know it is important.

  • Proactively capture information (in my head or on paper) sort it and order it and at least be in a position to be able to summarise or replay (if appropriate)
  • Free up my mind of clutter and distractions in order to be able to focus, consciously agree with myself that I will deal with X or Y issues later
  • Find a compelling and powerful reason to genuinely care – sometimes that is easier than others
  • Physically remind myself to stop talking – I use a pen or my knuckle in the mouth as a way of focussing myself

When in doubt I would always stick to the 80:20 rule – in most situations in which you are interacting with people, if you are \"arelistening for 80% of the time and talking for 20% then you have it about right.  Remember, to steal from Sean Kim, “while some may be impressed with how well you speak, the people that actually matter care about how well you listen.”


One response to “Two Ears versus One Mouth”

  1. An improving listener avatar
    An improving listener

    Thank you Richard. A blog that made me consider my own experience and skills as both a listener and listenee. And what I’ve realised is that, whilst the listening skills mentioned above are important, what happens after the talking stops is vital to the whole experience. What do you say, what do you do when someone has poured their heart out to you and there’s that silence………………………?

    So here’s a plea to myself and others:
    • Don’t feel the need to paraphrase, summarise or replay, just for the sake of something to say
    • If you find yourself starting to utter the words ‘Well, when that happened to me…………..’, stop right there
    • There’s a time for amateur psychology and a time to keep shtum
    • A smile, a held hand, a hug or a simple, heart felt ‘thank you’ might just be worth more than a thousand words

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