Listening skills

Listening Math

Have you noticed that most of the training we need is about what we already know, but don’t do enough of? That’s certainly the case with listening skills. We all know how important listening is, but we all fall short of the level we’re capable of.

The interesting thing about listening skill is that we all can perform at top levels when we’re really, really motivated, so it’s not a question of knowing what to do; it’s about executing at the necessary level consistently.

If you think you’re a good listener, here’s some listening math to ponder:

50/25/10 A study showed that the average person remembers only 50% of what was said immediately after a 10 minute oral presentation. After 24 hours, the figure drops to 25%, and to 10% after a week. The first 50% is not a memory problem, it’s a listening problem, as anyone knows who hears a person’s name for the first time and “forgets” it ten seconds later.


500/125 In standard American spoken English, we speak at about 125 words per minute, but process words mentally at about 500 words per minute. I’m not sure how scientific the thinking speed measurement is, but it’s obvious that we can think much faster than others can speak. That’s why it’s so easy to get distracted while listening to someone else. We think we can listen and think about something else at the same time, but we’re actually rapidly switching back and forth – except when we forget to switch back.


583 The number of people killed when two 747s collided at Tenerife airport in 1977, caused primarily by a chain of listening errors and misunderstandings between pilots and air traffic control, and between pilots and copilots.


80/45 Those of us in business spend up to 80% of our waking hours in communicating almost half (45%) of our communication efforts consist of listening. There’s a lot of effectiveness left on the table if we’re not listening to our full potential.


43,8 The average length of a political sound bite on national news in 1968, and the average length in 1988. CBS News tried to counter this trend by mandating a minimum 30-second sound bite, but had to abandon the effort when people would not listen.


18 “That’s the average time it takes a doctor to interrupt you as you’re describing your symptoms. By that point, he/she has in mind what the answer is, and that answer is probably right about 80% of the time.”  Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think


N = 1 One of the reasons that doctors (and possibly ourselves) tune out is that we think we’ve heard it all before. Maybe the other person needs advice with a problem, and it’s something we’re familiar with. Every conversation has a sample size of 1, because every person feels themselves unique, and maybe if we listen a little longer we may learn something new ourselves.


51+ This is a number I made up. 51+ represents the minimum level of responsibility you should take for your side of the conversation. When listening, don’t just passively take in the other’s words; meet them more than halfway and make sure you get their meaning. When talking, don’t assume that they got it just because you said it, make sure.


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