Did you even listen to what I wrote?


One of the cornerstones of effective communication is active listening.  As we talked about in a previous blog post, communication is a two-way street, and ensuring you are oriented to and understanding others is just as important as clearly getting your message across.  Active listening is about listening for meaning, not just words.  In fact, research has shown that a measly 7% of the meaning in a message is derived from the words that are used – 38% is conveyed through tone of voice and 55% through body language.

It is likely stating the obvious to say that technology has had a huge impact on communication.  The sheer volume of communications that we process daily has skyrocketed through the advent of email, text, Skype, instant messaging, etc.  Now consider the fact that we spend 28% of our time – that’s 13 hours in a standard workweek – reading and answering emails alone.  That means that we are probably spending more than third of our time on communications that are completely lacking the non-verbal cues provided by intonation and gesture – the components of communication that convey the most meaning. What can we do about this – how can we effectively listen for meaning when the medium itself conspires to limit us?  I think there are three things to consider if we want to foster effective “listening” in a technologically dense world.

First, we should recognize that there are some important parallels between attending when reading text and listening to auditory stimuli.  In both cases, information overload and divided attention can lead us to process information incompletely or inaccurately.  Because we get inundated with emails, we may go too fast in an attempt to get out from under the pile, sometimes checking email while doing all manner of other activities.  So the first order of the day is to get email volume under control by following commonsense guidelines such as not copying people unnecessarily.  We also need to consciously break the habit of multi-tasking, by fully engaging in what we are doing, even if you feel  urgency to check a box and move along.  As discussed in this blog post, that is a direct route to embarrassing errors and blunders.

Second, it is important that we not lose sight of the need to make up for the lack of nonverbal behavior when communicating through text alone. The emotional element of communications conveyed through nonverbals is so important that “emoticons” naturally evolved as an attempt to make up for this lack.  While these have their place in informal personal communications, they are really outside the sphere of professional communications.  This means that we have to make a greater effort when communicating in writing.  The basic tenets of active listening still apply: clarify what was said, acknowledge what you heard, probe to get deeper understanding, and summarize to ensure you are on the same page. But because people can’t infer from vocal signs or body language, we also need to take pains to state our own feelings directly (“I was delighted to hear that you made the sale with client X” or “I am frustrated that I was not informed of the delay before now”) and to ask the reader explicitly for their reactions (“How do you feel about…” or “What is your reaction to…”).  It can also be helpful to provide visual breaks in your text instead of narrating long paragraphs, or to imbed responses directly beneath topics or questions to resemble a conversational format.

Finally, I’m of the opinion that we need to have more actual face-to-face conversations.  It may seem easier and faster to send someone an email, but as we now know, a lot of the message is going to get lost in text versus talk.  The greater the emotional content of a conversation, the more likely you are going to miss something or misconstrue something if it the conversation is taking place via email.  So when in doubt, when emotions are high, or when the topic is complicated, have a face-to-face conversation.

 The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.  ~Peter F. Drucker