It’s frustrating when your co-workers, audience members, teenager or even your dog (!) won’t listen. While you can’t control how they receive what you say, you can control how you send it. Here are a few tips on why people don’t listen and what you can do to change it.
1. Short Attention Spans
When asked to guess the average adult attention span, most people say around thirty minutes. According to statistics, however, the average adult attention span is actually only seven seconds. That’s right! Every seven seconds you go away somewhere. You think about something else. In fact, you could actually be taking a mental break right now! It is a normal part of how the brain integrates external stimuli like when your computer starts defragging for a moment while you type. It helps to pause from time to time when you speak. This allows people to integrate your information or ask a clarifying question. Also, include examples to anchor your concepts. For example (see–I’m doing it now!), a concept without an example is like tree without roots, a house without a foundation, or Sonny without Cher. It just doesn’t have as much staying power.
2. Too Many Distractions
I was in a meeting the other day and five people coughed, four people side talked, three cell phones rang, two people went to the restroom, and a partridge did email on his PDA. Distractions are a big part of modern life. Your best bet is to acknowledge the distractions in a playful way such as a manager who recently led a meeting I attended. When a cell phone rang, he grabbed for it and said, “Oh, that’s for me….my mother likes to check in on me from time to time”. That prompted everyone to turn off their phones.
3. Lack of Training
Few of us were formally taught how to listen. While you probably took Reading 8, Writing 11, did you ever take Listening 10? It’s little wonder listening is challenging. Quite accidentally, I learned how to listen by practicing meditation. After a five-day retreat, I felt very light-hearted and so went to visit my aging father who was hard of hearing. My habit was to sit vacantly for hours while he complained about his arthritis, the error on his bank statement, and how hard it is to find good slippers. After this retreat, I surprised myself by totally paying attention to him with patience and compassion. After about ten minutes of complaining he suddenly changed tracks and started telling me fascinating and funny stories about his childhood. Then he cranked up his hearing aid and asked about me! Learn how to be present with people, give them your full, undivided attention and be ready for some pleasant surprises.
4. Language Barriers
It is no secret that the world of business is fast becoming a multicultural world. Although English is the default language of commerce, many people in your audience may speak English as a second language. Last month I was addressing a large insurance company where most attendees turned out to be new immigrants from China. I used the expression “getting jiggy with it”, and I saw people rifling through their dictionaries. This prompted me to say “I’m sorry, that went way over your head”, and a number of people looked up at the ceiling! If your listeners are ESL or have a more basic educational background, you need to simplify your language. Use much more literal descriptions rather than cultural expressions. Use facial and body language to express humor, and fewer words.
5. Unchecked Assumptions
Back in the 70s, Gilda Radner a comedienne who regularly performed on Saturday Night Live was well known for her popular character Emily Litella, a social activist with a hearing problem. Her causes included such important issues as violins on television, soviet jewelry and endangered feces. Believe it or not, those Emily Litella types can be found in your audiences. For example, I once told a story about my mother who was a secretary for the British Civil Service in WWII. She spent most of her time daydreaming that her boss would burst into the room and ask her to spy against the Germans. She could leave the nasty paperwork behind, don a disguise and become the next Mata Hari. Needless to say, one day her boss did burst into the room but instead he fired her for daydreaming all the time. A woman approached me after this story and told me that she used to be a Hari Krishna, too. One way to clear up false assumptions is to state your point in many different ways.
6. No Reason to Listen
Finally, the main reason people don’t listen is because you haven’t answered their favorite question: “What’s in it for me?” Before you start a long-winded monologue, tell your listener why you need their attention and make sure they understand how it will be benefit them. For example, “I’d like to tell you about this free software that will block all the spam before it gets to your Inbox …interested?” That will give you much better results than “When I was a youngster and I sat down in front of my first computer, I asked myself how can I make this machine work for me…” In general, put yourself in your listener’s shoes before you talk and their ears tend to perk up.
And just remember the greatest of all wisdom–no one ever listened himself out of a new friendship.
Copyright 2005 Yes Education Systems