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Hear With Your Ear? You Need To Be Here

“Today we broach the subject of Active Listening.” I have little doubt in my mind that if that was the opening sentence to a seminar or a one-to-one consultation, most of you would have already tuned out. Gotcha!

Are you ready now? Good. What this blog isn’t going to be is a thesis where I argue the need to listen actively. Rather, I mix together a few random facts, psych 101, a pinch of mindfulness and some useful tips.

Random Facts

  • Our brain works four times the speed that someone can speak
  • 85% of our learning is derived from listening. 
  • Listeners are distracted, forgetful and preoccupied 75% of the time. 
  • Most people only remember about 20% of what they hear over time


Psych 101 – A Cherry, cocktails and filters…………

Everyone loves to know a little bit of basic ‘psychology’. The following are some early, formative classic gems on listening and selective attention:

The Cocktail Party Effect

A bloke called Colin Cherry (who was actually an engineer) wanted to selectively filter out unwanted sounds, in order to make sense of a particular signal in the midst of noise.

Let me set the scene: you are happily chatting to someone at a cocktail party. You’re focusing your ‘full’ attention to what your friend is saying and it is easy to hear and follow. You might not notice, for example, the particular piece of music being played in the background because you are focusing your attention on what the other person is saying. Also, around you lots of other conversations are going on and similarly you don't really hear what other people are saying because of your focus on the current one.

However, now a couple are chatting a few metres away from you and they mention your name. It is quite likely, since we are all concerned to some extent over what other people say about us, that you will hear your name being mentioned. The question which arises is how were you able to detect a word (your name) in a conversation that you were ignoring? How can you ignore something and yet at the same time hear it?

In order to try to understand this phenomenon Cherry (1953) developed the “dichotic listening task” which involves being presented with two different messages, one to each ear via a set of headphones.

The task is to attend to one of the messages closely and involves ignoring the second message, to an extent, in order to do this successfully. To be sure that the participant is attending to the desired message, he or she is required to repeat the message out loud as accurately as possible, a process known as shadowing.

Click here for more….

Broadbent's (1958) Filter Theory

Since the amount of information coming in from both channels (the attended and unattended messages) is more than can be coped with reasonably well, one message needs to be inhibited or ignored.

The main features of the model are as follows:

• Sensory store

Incoming messages are held in a sensory store very briefly.

• Sensory filter

One message is filtered in and the remaining are filtered out (except for their basic physical features). Messages filtered in receive further processing, while filtered out messages are eventually lost.

 These elements of attention are said to process messages in the following way:

• The filter operates on the basic physical characteristics of the messages (e.g. sex of the speaker, type of sound).

• Filtering is a ‘winner-takes-all' process, which means that only one message is selected for further processing, the rest are lost.

• Filtering is done consciously, in that people decide what they want to listen to.

 Click here for more….

Body Language

There are lots of dos and don’ts concerning body language and effective listening. I find the summary Egan’s SOLER Theory:

S. If it suits them, face the client Squarely (some prefer up to 45 degrees)

O. maintain an Open Posture with the client.

L. lean towards the client (as appropriate).

E. maintain appropriate Eye Contact with the client.

R. be a Relaxed facilitator as by doing so you greatly improve the quality and comfort of  the sessions.

At Mendas we video record our client assessments and interviews and whilst the SOLER theory seems painfully obvious it can be surprisingly harder than you think.

 F.Y.I:  Gerard Egan is a Professor of Organisation Development and Psychology. The SOLER  theory comes from his book The Skilled Helper.


A few tips in no particular order

  • Don’t just listen for what you think you are going to hear or what you want to hear
  • Put that phone away – no emails, Facebook, Twitter or any other mindfulness breaker
  • Day dreaming – you could have been listening but then a cascade of thoughts start flowing
  • Try and separate yourself from the emotional side of the matter being discussed.
  • Rushing ahead and finishing the speaker’s thoughts.
  • Not responding when appropriate.
  • Avoid using negating phrases such as “yes, but …”
  • Trying to top the speaker’s story. Nobody likes a one-upper!
  • Forgetting what the speaker has already told you.



So this brings me to my main premise. Are alarm bells ringing? Well if you were actively listening or reading you would remember that at the outset I mentioned that my intention was not to champion the cause of Active Listening. Therefore there should be no ‘main’ premise.

Anyway, I would like to bring up the idea of the concentrated mindfulness in active listening. Mindfulness can be viewed in many forms and practices. What it means to me in this context is a minute by minute practice of being present in a conversation. So my case is this: you need to be ‘here’ or ‘there,’ be it within the room, within the telephone conversation but mainly within your mind to try and stop the stream.

Whilst I profess the usefulness of this practice, even I find it hard. Mindfulness is a difficult practice due to the wandering mind and conceptual flow, for example:

Speaker: “The government are making some serious cuts……………………..”

Mind: Hmm, more serious cuts. Cuts. [Conceptual flow] Hair. I really do need to make an appointment with Joe to get my hair cut and fringe trimmed”

For me it is only through a mindful awareness and practice that I can bring myself back to the speaker.

The good news is Active Listening is a learnable skill and attitude. Go here for some more good tips.

Bottom line for Business

People are intuitive to people who aren’t listening, or who have listened and haven’t taken it all in.

Even if you are able to fool people by ‘listening’ with your body language, it is ultimately you who will be at a loss because there is always something to be gained in every conversation and interaction.

If you want references or more information on any of the above, feel free to shoot me a message or leave a comment below.


Disclaimer: all puns and ZS heading tribute are completely intentional for the purpose of this blog


Go to 'The Hub'


Excellent read.

Bob Charles Sep 18, 2012 at 01:24 PM

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