"Listen Better and Understand More" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Listen Better and Understand More

May 1, 2012 - Dale Carnegie observed that the best conversationalists are those who listen. The Greek philosopher Epictetus observed, “We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

But old Epictetus might not recognize today’s environment where the term “listening” can include all forms of receiving information—print, email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, audio, face-to-face, video conferencing, television, and radio.

Yet so much is lost today between the sender and the receiver. Why don’t we always “hear” one another? And what can we do to improve?

Here are some of the most common issues:
  • Speaking but not listening.
  • Hearing without understanding.
  • Jumping in to say what’s on your mind when someone else is trying to communicate.
  • Hearing something you disagree with and ignoring everything that follows.
  • Not getting to the point. (Hurtful in a personal situation; harmful in a business situation.)

In the midst of our information age, which delivers light-speed transmission of huge volumes of data, these behaviors are becoming so common that they are almost acceptable. We can do better. That’s the point of Michael Nichols’ book, The Lost Art of Listening.

Think of society before the information age—you had a telephone and basically relied on face to face communication, mail, or memos. Life was simpler. But a rapidly changing, globally competitive, information loaded environment demands better listening skills in order to thrive.

Or think back to cowboys who worked alone and relied on minimal communication. They could only do so much. Now consider auto racing pit crews communicating with each other to accomplish astounding feats under great pressure. (Dr. Atul Gawande, a healthcare leader and surgeon, pointed out this difference in his commencement address at Harvard Medical School in 2011.)

Limited time also hinders receiving information. Even though we have more electronic conveniences than ever, there is more expected of us. And there are fewer places to “hide”—to recharge in a restful environment—so we can improve our ability to truly listen and receive valuable information.

Simultaneously, we are distracted by the electronic devices tethered to our bodies that project pictures, play music, have streaming headlines, and all sorts of other ambient noise.

What can help?

Two of the best skills in “active listening” are paraphrasing and summarizing, and they can work in anything from a heated conversation between two people, to an exchange of emails, to a conference call among colleagues.
  • Paraphrasing tests your understanding of what you believe you heard or what was transmitted to you. It also conveys to the other party that you are actively trying to understand what was said. Effective paraphrasing might start this way: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Your concern is that….”

  • Summarizing pulls together the ideas, facts and feelings in order to establish the basis for agreement on next steps. For instance: “Here are the three key points I’m hearing from everyone on this call…”

How many times have we heard the statement, “No one ever told me,” or “I didn’t know that was a possibility,” or “When did that happen?” Looking back, it turns out the information had been shared verbally, in writing, in a PowerPoint file, or included in the minutes of a meeting. But somehow the information was never received, assimilated, understood, or reacted to in a timely manner.

A good listener is a witness, a supporter not a “gotch you” type of person. We all need feedback in order to improve personally and professionally. Thinking back to our school years, we remember and respect those teachers who raised the bar, had high expectations but were good coaches and managed to get the best performance for all of their students. The good teacher or coach doesn’t try to knock the student or athlete down or intentionally embarrass. Of course these negative actions can happen but they should not be the norm.

On a personal level we should be proud and pleased when a friend is doing well. That doesn’t mean we can’t redirect their attention to an area which needs more work or correction. Gore Vidal said hopefully sarcastically, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Being a good listener also means connecting emotionally with friends, family, and business associates.

Who we are and what we say determines how other’s respond to us in most situations. Other’s response in turn determines how we proceed. Namely, we have a continuous feedback loop which can range in the positive as a virtuous cycle or in the negative as a vicious cycle. Living in any environment with a virtuous cycle is so much more productive, enjoyable and mutually beneficial for all concerned.

Unfortunately, in our current milieu with a 24/7 hunger to produce and view news we generally publicize the negative and perpetuate a vicious cycle. Taking this positive or negative attitude down to local businesses, interpersonal contacts, or even familial relations makes a huge difference in how we live our lives. Understanding how to listen and understand is a fundamental character trait we all need to work on in order to thrive.

Often times, because listening is so basic, the sender of information just takes for granted that the message was received by everyone. But we all need feedback to improve personally and professionally.

Being that empathetic listener—in the boardroom or in a family circle—helps to break through misunderstandings and conflicts. It transforms our professional and personal relationships. And that helps both our mental and emotional health.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.