Monday, August 8, 2011

Are You Listening?

I was thinking about our listening abilities the other day.  No, this didn't just come out of the blue.  Like so many thoughts I have this one was spurred by two incidents, both of which happened while up here at the cottage (yes, I'm looking out over the lake as I type this...)
  1. I was sitting reading on the front porch beside my husband when I turned to him, commenting on something that I heard the neighbours say while they were out swimming, maybe two-thirds of a football field away.  Bear in mind that sound travels amazingly well over water.  My husband was stunned that I could hear them clearly from that that distance... although he could tell they were speaking he couldn't decipher any of their conversation.

  2. As with many cottages, we have had issues periodically with mouse invasions.  A friend recommended that we try the sonic mouse deterrents they had installed in their cottage - having had great success with them.  These are small devices that, when plugged into an outlet, emit sonic noises that are uncomfortable to mice and deter them from setting up home anywhere near them.  This noise is apparently undetectable to humans.  As soon as they were plugged in though, I commented on the low-level hum that they emitted.  No...  I don't think I have the hearing sensitivities of a mouse, but the device does have a small motorized sound to it that is constant and a little irritating at first.  My husband of course... hears nothing.

These two incidences are what got me started thinking about our hearing.  Given that I don't possess 'super' listening powers, why the differences in our abilities?  The one conclusion I reached was that our jobs are very different.  Much of the work that he does is in his head... analyzing, computing, reporting.  It is a very one-sided form of communication. Certainly he has meetings and speaks with people, but the level and type of listening is very different from my own. 

In my role as a coach and trainer, certainly in my role of 'reading' others, I am paying close attention to the nuances of messages.  Tonal shifts in speaking voices are telling, as are shifts in volume, pace and pitch.  My conscious listening habits while at 'work' I supposed, meant that my listening skills in general were more enhanced.

In researching this further (and yes, I really do go look this 'stuff' up!) it appears that although 60% of all communication time is spent listening, we only retain less than 25% of what we hear.  In our modern world, which is becoming more busy, more noisy... it seems we are losing our listening skills. 
  • We are bombarded by noise and sound, which is leading us to develop more selective hearing, unconsciously electing to not hear more and more sounds.  Just as people living close to airports for instance no longer consciously hear the planes flying overhead, we too unconsciously learn to ignore certain repetitive sounds in our lives.  Although we can consciously attend to and hear them when directed to, we learn to cancel out repetitive noises to increase our own personal comfort

  • There are now so many ways and means for us to record and play back conversations and information that we no longer feel the need to pay as close attention in the first place, knowing we can 'listen' later

  • So many people walk around with headphones plugged into their ears that they are creating their own little personal sound bubbles.  We are therefore teaching ourselves that we can only attend to minimal and directed sound

  • As the demands on our time increase we are becoming more and more impatient in our listening, requiring people to get to the point.  Twitter, Facebook and email communications have taught us that we need to communicate in sound bites, thereby reducing the need (and perhaps desire) to communicate messages through conversations

  • There are increasing demands for our attention as well, with media alone bombarding us with constant messaging, such that we are becoming desensitized to these messages.  Ads are now becoming more graphic - bigger, bolder, more blatant - in an effort to get noticed.  As a result, we are missing the more subtle pieces and forms of information and communication.

As a result of the above though, we are developing into a nation (if not a world) of poor listeners.  We are missing much of what is happening in the world around us and increasing not just the odds of miscommunicating but of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the messages we are receiving..  If listening is our access to truly understanding, then learning to listen more consciously represents our path back to increasing our understanding of the world, and people, around us.

Julian Treasure, sound expert, offers the following five suggestions for increasing your ability to reconnect yourself to the world of sound...
  1. Practice 3 minutes of silence a day in order to recalibrate your ears.  If you can't manage silence, go for three minutes of quiet.  Use this time to allow your hearing to once again tune into the smaller, more subtle noises around you.

  2. When you find yourself in a mixed-noise environment (like a coffee bar, cocktail party etc.), sit back and listen, trying to isolate the sounds.  Try to focus on only one sound in particular. When you've isolated it from the noise around you, select another to attend to.  Challenge yourself to decipher as many separate channels of noise as you can.

  3. Learn to hear, savour and enjoy the mundane sounds around you.  (such as the dishwasher, car engine, sonic mouse repellent)  This helps you to break through the unconscious filters you have placed on your listening, allowing you to more consciously select and choose what you wish to listen to and hear.

  4. Play with your listening positions, in order to hear differently.  Julian emphasizes that the position that we take in a conversation very much determines the outcome of what we've heard.  To change the content of the messages received, change the listening position you have adopted.  For example... switch from active to passive listening, reductive to expansive, critical to empathetic.

  5. Use the Acronym RASA (sanskrit for Juicy or Essence) to help you be a better listener.

      • R - Receive (pay attention)

      • A - Appreciate (provide supportive behaviours and sounds to the speaker)

      • S - Summarize (to demonstrate and validate understanding)

      • A - Ask questions

Learning to listen better and more attentively can open you to significantly more information in your communicative processes.  There are a lot of messages delivered through more subtle systems than we might otherwise catch.  Opening ourselves to hearing them may provide us with a wealth of information that would enhance our relationships and decisions.  Now... if they would discover a sonic mouse deterrent that was as quiet as the proverbial mouse... I'd be a happy woman.

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