How fast thinking can block effective listening, and what you can do about it

People can think four or five times faster than they can speak. So when someone thinks they’re listening, what is their mind actually doing?

According to James Borg in his bestseller Persuasion: The Art of Influencing People, the average person speaks at 120 – 150 words per minute, but thinks at 600 – 800 words per minute. So the listener is always ahead of the person doing the talking.

Fast thinking is usually regarded as a good thing – but not when you should be listening! Here, it means that the listener’s mind has time to wander, to make new connections… and to start planning what they will say next.

And so, before the speaker has come close to finishing the point they are making, the “listener” is poised to:

  • Interrupt
  • Finish the other person’s sentence
  • Talk over the other person
  • Offer advice too soon.

No wonder so many relationships – both personal and at work – break down with the complaint: “You never listen to me!”

Borg says: “Of all aspects of communication, listening is the most important…

“Think about somebody you know who isn’t a good listener. Who, in fact, never seems to listen to anything you say. Frustrating, isn’t it? And how does it make you feel about that person? Chances are they will have a hard time persuading you as you are too busy feeling annoyed because they never listen.

“Powerful persuasion begins with the ability to hear what others are saying…

“When people are accused of being poor listeners, it is usually done behind their backs. So they remain unaware of this major failing, which can lose them friends, work colleagues and business clients.”

If someone is not a good listener, perhaps their best friend should tell them! But I wonder… if they did, would they be heard?

Three quick tips for better listening

Listening – particularly when you’d like to be talking – can take some effort. But it’s well worthwhile. As Wilson Mizner said: “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.”

Here are three ways to up your game:

  1. Pay attention! Turn off distractions such as phones, email, the radio or TV, and focus completely on the person who is speaking.
  2. Get curious about the speaker. Every person is amazing: this is your opportunity to discover what’s interesting about this individual, how they think and how they express themselves.
  3. Ignore your own stream of thoughts. Mentally turn down the volume (or dim the picture) of your internal chatterbox (or kaleidoscope). Don’t worry – those thoughts are yours already! But this unique opportunity to listen to someone else will never come round again.

And that’s just the start! If you’d like to hear more about listening – more tips, more articles, more links – sign up at the top right of this website.

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