Can You Hear Me, or Aren’t You Listening?

listeningThe human body truly is amazing. Take your ears, for example. So many of us take them for granted. Yet these odd looking appendages allow us to enjoy music, recognize friend from foe, and engage in meaningful communication. In fact, we rely on verbal communication to such an extent that references to ears and hearing are everywhere.

“Do you hear what I hear?”

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

“Can you hear me now?”

Here are a few facts about our ears that you may find interesting:

  • The outer ear, the part hanging on the side of your head, is designed in a way that funnels the variety of sound waves around us and channels them to the middle ear.
  • Incoming sound moves from the outer ear to the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations are picked up by three bones that amplify the sound.
  • These three bones (the malleus, the incus, and the stapes) make up the middle ear and are the smallest in the human body. All three could fit on the face of a penny.
  • After leaving the middle ear, sound waves are picked up by tiny hairs in the liquid medium of our inner ear. These hairs release chemicals that send signals to the brain which interprets the sound.
  • Humans are capable of detecting sounds as low as 20 Hz and as high as 20,000 Hz.
  • We need both ears to help determine the direction from which sounds originate. Using both ears also makes it easier to pick out someone’s speech in noisy environments.
  • The human ear continues to function even while we are asleep. The brain simply blocks out most of the input.

As incredible as our ears are, we don’t do a very good of using them. As far back as 1957, researchers have been studying the difference between hearing and listening. That’s when Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens from the University of Minnesota conducted tests to find the connection between hearing information and retaining it.

They tested several thousand people by having them listen to a short talk and then testing them on the content. Their tests revealed that “immediately after the average person has listened to someone talk, he remembers only about half of what he has heard – no matter how carefully he thought he was listening.” Within two months, the average participant in their study could only recall about 25% of what had been said during the short talk they had listened to.

You would expect that, over time, we’d retain less and less of the material we’d been exposed to, but the University of Minnesota study found otherwise. After one year, Nichols and Stevens reported that we tend to forget more during the first, shortest interval than we do over the next six months or more. The most significant retention loss occurs within the first eight hours.

Their conclusion was rather blunt: people simply do not know how to listen.

Hearing and listening are two very different activities. Hearing is a passive activity. It happens without me doing anything. Without any effort on my part, sound waves are entering my outer ear, hitting my eardrum and vibrating the bones of my middle ear, and then creating chemical secretions in the hair of my inner ear which then travel to my brain. This complex process is effortless.

Listening, however, is not a passive activity. Listening is intentional. It requires me to concentrate on specific sounds in order to analyze them. Listening involves more than just the ears. The brain must be engaged in order to create context, meaning, and application. This complex process is anything but effortless.

But remember, Nichols and Stevens found that the no matter how hard participants in their study worked at listening, the results were still the same. Listening “harder” did not help anyone retain more information or hold onto it for a longer period of time. The problem, they said, is that our brains are just too powerful.

Most Americans speak at a rate of around 125 words per minute. Our brains, on the other hand, process information significantly faster. We still know all there is to know about the brain, but suffice it say 125 words a minute barely registers. Our minds simply have a lot of extra time to ponder other things even while listening intently to someone else.

I myself am often distracted while trying to listen to other people. For instance, during a walk around my neighborhood, I like to download a podcast or two in order to help pass the time. I hit the play button and focus my mind on the speaker’s content, intent on learning something new and interesting. But within seconds, my mind has drifted. Something that’s said sends causes my thoughts to wander. Sometimes I start thinking about how I can apply one of principles they’ve shared. Other times, a word or phrase jogs my memory about an unrelated topic and my mind is off to the races – moving in a different direction even as the speaker shares valuable and intriguing information. I’m hearing, but I’m not listening.

They key to improved listening has nothing to do with our ears. Obviously, the answer doesn’t lie in slowing our brains down either. We’ve got to arm ourselves with tools that help focus our minds in a way that listening is improved. We have to discover methods of actively participating with the information being received so that it makes a bigger impact.

That’s why the term “active listening” is so appropriate. Listening is not a passive activity. It requires action on our part in order to work. The next time you find your mind drifting during a conversation, don’t just sit there. Take action!