How to Effectively Listen and Learn

Posted on: November 9th, 2017 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

In my last blog, I wrote about people pretending to hear us or tuning out and living in their own world. There are tell-tale signs to look out which indicate whether a person is giving you their full attention or faking it. Today I want to flip the coin, and look at how to be an effective listener. If you know how to listen and engage you will have more fulfilling relationships personally and professionally.

I did some research as to how to best listen and learn and I returned to an old paper, written by two academics in 1957 that was originally published in The Harvard Business Journal – a classic! Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens, from Minnesota University, spent years studying people’s ability to listen. They came to the conclusion that people often do not listen effectively because people think much faster than they talk. Most people use around 125 words a minute, but we think at seven times that rate – around 825 words per minute. When we listen we ask our brains to receive words at a much slower pace than we think. We have to slow our thought processes, but the brain has capacity to process more than 125 words a minute, or as Nichols and Stevens put it, the brain still has some spare time for thinking and it is the use or misuse of this spare thinking time that sets apart a good listener from a poor listener.

The mind wanders when we listen to speech

Nichols and Stevens use the example of a boss telling an employee about a new program. The boss starts talking, the workers start listening, but after a while the worker is growing tired of the boss’s slow speech rate and his mind starts to wander. The worker dashes out into a mental side track and remembers he must tell his boss about a recent success, then he comes back to his boss for a few more words before darting away again – perhaps wondering what he should eat for lunch. Sooner or later the worker stays away too long on a mental side track. When he returns the boss has moved ahead of him to the point where the worker has missed key parts of the message.

I loved Nichols and Stevens’s research. Suddenly I understood why I did so badly at school. The slower the teachers spoke, the more distracted and bored I became. In New South Wales there are special classes for gifted and talented students, because these children often become disengaged at school – they are bored. Instead of being the teacher’s pet, they become the class clown. They need to be taught at an accelerated pace. Hence smart kids are not always the best listeners.

Smarter people think quickly

It has also been scientifically proven that the smarter a person is, the more quickly information dashes around their brain. The University of California carried out magnetic resonance imaging of brains and found that the cells that carry nerve impulses from one part of the brain to another were faster in people found to be intelligent by other conventional tests (such as IQ tests).

Practical steps to engage your listening

So how do you get smart people and even averagely intelligent people to listen without their thoughts wandering? Nichols and Stevens did come up with some suggestions. Let’s go through them.

  • Try to anticipate where the speaker is going – what are they getting at, what conclusion will they make. This does not mean you should stop listening and second guess them, rather it is an intellectual exercise to hold your attention.
  • Question whether the speaker has used sufficient evidence to back up his points. Are there any holes in the argument?
  • Periodically write a summary of the main points in your head, recapping what has been said.
  • Listen between the lines and search for what has gone unsaid. Basically this means you are looking for nonverbal communication, such as body language.

Remember you think much more quickly than someone speaks so you have the capacity to carry out steps one to four, but it requires mental discipline and practice. According to Nichols and Stevens you need to practice these steps frequently to develop the mental agility to become a good listener. Nichols and Stevens also advise against memorising facts. Some people memorise facts as a method to keep themselves engaged when listening to speech, but Nichols and Stevens insist that by the time you’ve memorised three facts you’ve missed the next two! Instead they advise us to listen for key ideas and reconstruct the thinker’s main thoughts. Next time you go to hear an address – in church, at a political rally or just speeches at a party – write down Nichols and Stevens four points on a card and keep it in your hand to look at. Try to carry out these four steps as you listen, and see if you were more engaged.

Emotions can blinker comprehension

Nichols and Stevens also warn that our emotions can blinker our comprehension. To avoid jumping to conclusions it is essential to hear the speaker out until the end. Always be slow to judge others. Not only does the good book say this, but it is also one of the most important principles of learning, especially when learning through words – judgments and decision-making should be reserved until after the talker has finished. Nichols and Stevens do advise listeners to remain sceptical, and always be asking if the evidence backs up the main points. They say an important part of listening is found in the search for negative evidence in what we hear. Unfortunately when we think well of someone, we are reluctant to look for the negative, but it is essential if you are to become an effective listener.

There are other ways to listen actively. In my blog on how to recognise when people are paying attention I advised the speaker to watch for physical cues from the listener like a smile or laugh. As a listener, make a point of nodding when you agree with a speaker or smiling when they make amusing points. As the listener this will prompt you to be more in the moment. Again formulate questions to ask the speaker about this subject.

It is important to listen to what others want to tell us. We become more human by sharing their life experiences and there is also potential for us to learn something new. By learning we continue to grow, and ultimately to prosper.


Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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