The Ability to Listen

The Ability to Listen

Our ability to really “listen” is key to living well (and playing well with others 😉).

Neuroscience shows that those with functioning hearing “hear” what’s being said, but rarely “listen” to the whole message. The ability to hearis typically innate, but the ability to listenis a skill that must be developed and practiced. This is becoming more and more an issue with the tendency toward shorter attention spans.

To highlight that point, back in 2015 a study by Microsoft Corp. found that since the year 2000 (about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. We are currently likely to absorb the beginning of a sentence but be distracted by the end of the paragraph.

Yet research also has shown that when we consciously connect with another person – giving them our full attention, transcending any duality of right/wrong, leader/follower, etc., – a dopamine reaction causes both persons to feel happy. On the other hand, long-term loneliness has been shown to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day! The UK has recognized this to the degree that they now have a Minister of Loneliness. (NYTimes article on loneliness).

Plus we must take into account limitations on the other side: When we are expressing ourselves, we often believe we are have been clear in our communication but then find out later we haven’t! In our digital age, I doubt that anyone has not experienced this – in person as well as across the cloud.

Most of us take communication for granted. Yet it is much trickier than we imagine – particularly when the person giving the information understands the material much better than the one receiving it.

Research has shown there is a “curse of knowledge”. A simple experiment at Stanford back in the 1990’s helped prove this point: They divided people into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers had to communicate a well-known song – one the listeners would be certain to know, like “Happy Birthday” – by tapping out the rhythm alone (no tune or words) on a table. Most of the tappers guessed beforehand that at least half the time the listeners would be able to guess the song. But according to Heath and Heath (authors of the books Made to Stickand The Power of Moments), out of the 120 songs that were tapped out, the listeners guessed only 3 correctly. In other words, the tappers succeeded only 2.5 percent of the time – 1.5 orders of magnitude less effective communication than they had expected.

Empathizing deeply with a specific target audience is key to creative development and marketing success. We are all well aware of the unreliability of polling, leading questions and social media manipulation. Applying these contemporary truths to the field of marketing research exposes the limitations of AI and text analytics. Real empathy can only be gained by consciously and skillfully listening to the consumer.

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