Are you listening or are you hearing?

Recently I was in a meeting listening to a business owner talking with a key employee and it was obvious that the meeting would be nonproductive. The meeting recalled a quote by Stephen Covey, a business teacher, “most people do not listen with the intent of understanding; they listen with the intent to reply.” That was certainly the case in that meeting and isn’t that true of many of the meetings in which we have all participated in our careers? Have we really understood the message, or did we listen and not truly be impacted to action? What is the big deal? Well, being a business owner and doing some research turns out that it is a big deal. Here is some data to think about.

  • Managers and office workers spend as much as 40% of their time communicating. As a business owner, that could be as much as 80%. Have you ever kept track of your time in meetings or communicating with an employee, a vendor or a customer?

  • SIS International Research, an international Market Research consulting firm, estimates that 70% of small to midsize businesses are losing money to ineffective listening and communications. They estimate a business with 100 employees spends an average of 17 hours per week clarifying communications, which translates to an annual cost in excess of $500,000. I have often wondered how much business our company lost because our salespeople didn’t truly hear what the buyer’s urgent issues were. The same question can be applied to employees and vendors.

  • Research shows the average person listens at only 25% efficiency.

  • We speak around 150 words per minute and think at 700 words per minute.

  • The term active listening is used by many writers on the topic of good communications. Active listening is when you are fully committed to hearing what the speaker has to say. According to Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant, the most important thing in communications is hearing what is not said. Let me share two personal experiences: one as the owner of a company and the second as a SCORE mentor. Good listening also includes listening with your eyes. I was in the final interview with a man who was to head our manufacturing department. Our practice was for Doreen and me to take the husband and wife to dinner. Things went very well until near the end of dinner when I asked Doreen if she had any questions. Doreen asked the wife how she felt about the move. The tears came immediately, and the wife said, “I don’t want to move.”

RELATED: SCORE column: Consider adding the benefits of an advisory board

In the second case, Doreen and I had been mentoring a couple planning to go into business together. Again, things were going great until I asked Doreen if she had any final comments. She turned to the woman and asked the same question and there were no tears this time, but the comment was, “I’m out of here, this is too much one-sided and I’m not getting what I want.” Messages sent by body language are critical and in both cases I did not hear the total message, but Doreen did. The major benefits of practicing good hearing techniques are:

Newsletter signup for email alerts
  • You get the whole message.

  • Increased productivity through fewer mistakes and misunderstandings.

  • Better time management.

  • You can better understand your team, learn how to help them grow and make a greater impact for the business.

  • Improved customer relationships.

  • Increased market share and profits.

How does one improve one’s listening skills? It takes time, practice, and commitment. Here are some tips that I have learned during my career and on which we focus as SCORE mentors:

  • Suspend judgment and listen to what is being said.

  • Do not allow interruptions.

  • Do not deflect. Stay on topic.

  • Reflect what you heard in your terms. Does the speaker confirm your understanding? When you are the speaker, ask for the same feedback on the important message from participants.

  • Ask for the result. How is it measured and what is the time and commitment to get there?

  • Be careful not to share too much of your history dealing with similar problems. Let them have the experience and success. It may be necessary for you to point out unrecognized risks or limitations of time and money.

Communication is a major activity in all our lives, be it at work, with family, friends, or neighbors. I would submit that the most unhappiness and problems in relationships occur when the people you meet and talk with do not feel they have been heard … that they do not count. That certainly was the case in my professional life as I developed high performing teams and grew several businesses. What actions can you take to be more successful in your communications?

SCORE is here to help. or 218-251-4413

As a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE - which offers free business mentoring and education -- notes the organization has helped more than 11 million entrepreneurs through mentoring, workshops and educational resources since 1964. The nonprofit SCORE was previously known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives.