One of the most common sayings in sales is that God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you should use them in that proportion. That’s true, but it does not go far enough.
We hear with our ears, but we listen with our brains. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. It’s like the difference between seeing and reading. One is passive, and goes on without having to think; the other is active.
Your ears can only pick up the sounds of language, not its physical expressions. Your brain simultaneously processes and synthesizes signals from the eyes and the ears, picking up “micro-expressions” and other cues, often much faster than conscious thought.
Your ears can only hear what is being said; they faithfully pass on the signal to the brain. Hearing what is not said only takes place in the brain itself.
It may seem strange that something we’ve done naturally for our entire lives could stand improvement, but when you analyze what’s actually happening as your brain is listening, you realize that there is a lot of complicated processing going on. Let’s take a look at what happens when someone is listening. There is a model called SIESR, which stands for:
Sensing: We receive the incoming signals, including expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Interpreting: We figure out the sender’s intent.
Evaluating: We evaluate what it means to us, in this particular context.
Storing: We keep incoming information in working memory so that we can respond properly.
Responding: We do or say something in response.
Out of the five steps above, the first involves the ears, and the last involves the mouth. But the real meat of the sandwich is the three steps in the middle. That’s where the quality and effectiveness of the dialogue takes place.
Interpreting: Have you accurately interpreted what the other person said? Is their meaning clear? Have they told you the entire truth and nothing but? Do their other signals match the words that are coming out of their mouths? What have they left out? Why did they say this and not that? Are we so focused on getting what we want to hear that we miss something important but unexpected?
Evaluating: Is this what we expected them to say? Does it fit with what we already know? If not, how does it change what we thought we knew? What’s the quality of their evidence? How do we know it’s true? If we don’t think it’s true, what are they missing or hiding? How does it fit with our intentions for the conversation?
Storing: Some variations of the model leave out this step, maybe because they take it for granted. But as we become more scatterbrained and attention-deficient, it becomes more and more important to reinforce this step. Are we getting everything they are saying? If they are going on for a while, have our minds wandered in the middle of their soliloquy? Are we taking effective notes?
Keep in mind that these mental operations are going on while the other person is speaking, which is only possible because our minds can process words about four times as fast as the other person can speak them. This means that we have plenty of bandwidth to run these operations while the other person is speaking. Unfortunately that can also be a big disadvantage, because or attention can flit in and out; what often happens is that we either let our minds wander to something else, or we think we know how they’re going to finish the sentence so we either sneak a quick peek at our email or we begin formulating our response. Anytime these things happen, it’s easy to lose the thread of the conversation, and can be difficult to get it back.
How to improve listening with your brain?
Prepare for the conversation. If it’s a sales call, of course you want to have a call plan. But even for personal conversations, you can review your notes or refresh your memory for previous conversations, and have an intent for the dialogue. Put away whatever was on your mind up to that point and remind yourself to listen actively.
Get physically involved. Sometimes the mind takes cues from what the body is doing. Face the other person squarely if you’re face to face. If it’s on the phone, make sure you’re not positioned with a screen in front of your face. Use following skills. While this is not “thinking”, it will keep your focus locked onto the conversation.
Use your faster thinking time to your advantage. If the person is talking at length, use the extra processing bandwidth to summarize and repeat the message. Use that time to monitor your own listening behavior. Focus fully on what they’re saying, not what your response is going to be—you will have plenty of time for that when they’re done.