Bad at complying? You might just be a very bad listener

Bad at complying? You might just be a very bad listener

Whenever you enrol in soft-skills training for work—leadership, conflict resolution, team-player— there are aspects of the experience you can pretty much count on: You will find yourself in a classroom with fluorescent lighting, unstainable carpet and motivational posters that invariably include puppies, elephants or monkeys.

There will always be a bulky binder for course materials, a pull-down projection screen and some form of journal or note card on which you can write your “learnings". Your instructor will likely be unfailingly patient and well-informed. And there will be role playing—a bummer for those of us just now getting used to ourselves. You almost always begin by exploding commonly held misconceptions and move on to a new set of skills that include some easier-said-than-done bullet points: “Clear your mind".

And so it went last week during a visit to Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labour Relations for a two-day class on “The Power of Listening". If you go in with the assumption that you will be fixed like a slipping transmission, it is not very long into the listening exercises, questionnaires and videos before you might think to yourself, I’ve heard enough.

But, then, of course, you probably weren’t listening. Some people here take the course because it helps with certification requirements for certain jobs. Most attendees, ranging from labour-relations managers to a police officer, take it for personal development. There is usually someone who takes it because their bosses are looking to fix them. It is a course I have been wanting to take—almost as much as my family has wanted me to.

While allegedly listening, bad listeners are often rehearsing what they are about to say, grab every conversational opening and scout for flaws in an argument.

By the end of the first day, you are not simply looking at a second day of course work, but a long, slow rehabilitation.

The trick to listening better begins with readiness to listen which, concedes instructor Jennifer Grau, is not easy in an age of interruption abetted by call waiting and instant messages. It also helps a lot if you can set your judgements aside.

Truth is, bad listening is often blamed falsely when a listener has chosen not to comply. But Grau, raised in Brooklyn, is not going to put lipstick on that pig. “Sometimes, the hardest part of listening is the mental part of getting yourself willing," she says.

Assuming you have overcome the hurdles, the task of listening to understand rather than simply to reply has three key elements: Involved silence (eye contact, vocal encouragements), probes (supportive inquiry using questions such as “what" as opposed to the aggressive “why") and paraphrasing (“What I think you said is..."). That last step should not simply be spitting back what people say, but integrating information about the speaker’s attitudes and feelings, 55% of which is communicated non-verbally in body language (only 7% of feelings are communicated with words, Grau says).

When you consider that these skills are culled from a longer list (awareness, attending, perceiving, et cetera), it is clear that listening takes an awful lot of time, which few of us have.

“Efficiency and politeness are inversely correlated," concedes Grau.

We spend much of Day 2 practising our involved silence as classmates take turns talking about something important and listening to someone else. That means no eye wandering, eye rolling or slouching boredom.

The speaker in our little subgroup begins, “It’s difficult to be green."

It turns out to be a marketing executive’s struggle to reduce his carbon footprint. Even one laid-back administrative staff manager—who, judging from her ability to recall all of the instructor’s directions, is also a varsity listener—is having trouble being attentive and mustering probing questions.

“There are no boring subjects—just unskilful listeners," Grau reminds us.

But the chips are stacked against the speaker—and the rest of us. Humans speak at an average pace of 110-200 words per minute, but they can understand in a range of 400 to 3,000 words per minute. “Human beings can’t produce at the rate our brains find interesting," says Grau.

The final bit of advice before the session ends is to try out our new soft skills at home. My wife, who had asked me to make sure I returned her bank card to her before she left for work the next morning, ended up stranded at the subway station several blocks away without it. Her non-verbal communications accused me of not listening, but now I know it was merely a failure to comply.

(Write to Jared at