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How to bore friends and lose employees

Very few people can get away with ‘talking at’ other people. To do so they need to be blessed with charm and an ability to spin a great yarn. Sadly, most of us are not blessed with such abilities, yet many of us talk and talk and talk at other people rather than asking questions and listening. I don’t mean half listening while you wait for the other person to pause for a breath so that you can say what you were thinking about saying, whilst they were talking, I mean really listening, actively!


Not knowing how to listen is doing massive damage in organisations: “Not being really listened to by my manager/s” is one of the most common complaints we hear from the people and teams we work with. This is no trite matter. The extent of this is losing people to absenteeism, and more long-term losing them forever to other organisations. When it takes on average 25,000 euro to recruit and train a new person, it is quite incredible to think that we are losing this money spent over something as humanly basic as listening, don’t you think?’

You may be thinking to yourself that the people who say they are not being listened to are just playing the victim, but we see it with our own eyes all the time. People think they are listening to others, but in actual fact they are not!

Research in neuroscience (Spunt, 2013), indicates the presence of two large-scale systems in the human brain that play a major role in successful listening: the putative mirror neuron system, which likely facilitates the relatively automatic perception of the how of speech (i.e., how it is being said); and the so-called mentalizing system, which likely underlies our ability to actively reach conclusions about the why (i.e., why it is being said) of speech behavior. The dynamic interaction of mirroring and mentalizing processes may be pivotal for successful listening and social interaction more generally. Often managers are more focused on the tasks that must be achieved, thinking about their next meeting or worrying about something they can do nothing about, than fully engaging these systems.

Neuroscience has confirmed what we have always known, that there is an important difference between hearing and listening. Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz: “While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast.” Horowitz says hearing has evolved as a more essential tool for survival than sight. So we have no excuse. We have the hardware , we just don’t have the focus and we don’t take the time.

However, we humans are not totally at fault. Some would argue that the tecnological age we live in, where we are constantly looking at screens (computers, ipads, texting on phones) is etching away at our ability to listen. Horowitz says ‘The modern world of sound—and more often, noise—is being overrun by digital distraction and information overload’.

Many managers wonder why their teams aren’t as productive as they might be. In our experience, we see time and time again that when managing performance, as with much of the interacting we do in life, people often “wait to speak” rather than listening attentively and actively. Yet listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything. Our reactions to what we hear are less processed and more instinctive than our reactions to what we see.’ Horowitz describes the auditory sense as the human “alarm system” that operates constantly, even while asleep.

If we truly listen, we can tune into what might be holding a team member back, that small nudge that someone needs to help push them over the finishing line. Ask questions, and listen to the variation in people’s words, and their tone of voice NOW instead of waiting until they are shouting for attention or worse still, they’ve left the building, and you’ll never hear their voice again!

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