Today’s the day we’re encouraged to talk about mental health.
But here’s the thing: for that conversation to help, someone must listen.
According to the Time to Change campaign, mental health problems affect one in four of us. That means 75% of us should be opening our ears - not our mouths - this ‘Time to Talk Day’. Yet many of us just aren’t very good at listening.
Dick Lee and Delmar Hatesohl’s study ‘Listening: Our most used communications skill’ suggests that: ‘We spend around 80% of our waking hours communicating and 45% of that time listening’ reinforcing what other research has repeatedly shown: while we hear a lot, we listen a lot less.
We also tend to forget. Authors Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens report in their seminal Harvard Business Review article ‘Listening to People’: ‘Immediately after listening to someone talk, the average person remembers about half… two months later that’s halved again to 25%.’ Point made.
Listening costs nothing and brings huge benefits. In his fantastic TEDx Talk ‘The Power of Listening’, leading negotiation expert William Ury even suggests that ‘listening can revolutionise our world for the better - if only more of us would do it’.
So why don’t we listen?
It seems listening is not so much a forgotten skill as an untaught one. Madelyn Burley-Allen’s 1982 classroom study, ‘Listening: Are we teaching it, and if so, how?’, found time spent teaching students different communication styles was inversely related to the time they used them. ‘Students get 12 years formal writing training, 6-8 years in reading, 1-2 years in speaking, and less than half a year in listening’.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that active listening is sadly lacking in schools and, without guided instruction, some, like University of Reading’s Suzanne Graham feel ‘it’s a skill that develops very slowly – if at all.’ [‘Research into practice: Listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting’.]
The good news is that listening can be improved with the right guidance. So much of ‘what you say’ and ‘how you say it’ depends on what you listen to and for.
Listening has the power to transform your communications and your career. That’s why ‘effective listening’ is a key part of my ‘Make Your Mark’ programme.
For those who haven’t attended, here are some of my top tips to help you improve your listening skills:
Look at the speaker, give them your full attention and stay quiet.
Iterate their phrases to encourage them to expand their point(s).
Show interest and clarify understanding by asking open questions.
Tease out what’s glossed over or not said.
Encourage them to talk by expressing your support.
Now summarise & empathise without judging or offering solutions.
It’s a basic human desire to be heard and understood. For me, it starts with opening our ears and listening, rather than opening our mouth and talking. This results in the ‘pay it forward’ mindset Ury describes when he says, in that great, previously mentioned, TEDx talk:
‘When someone listens to you, you are more likely to listen to someone else.’
Millions of conversations take place every day and, I wager, more talking goes on than listening. Yet it’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation when half of what’s needed is lacking (and when we’re wearing headphones).
The team behind ‘Time to Talk Day’ has compiled a wealth of resources - ‘Tips for talking about mental health’ on their time-to-change.org.uk website. But, even if this topic feels daunting to you, make your next conversation today one where you listen, really listen.
I promise that act alone will be good for your speaker’s mental health and yours.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned coach. One of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique blend of experience now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work.