communication skills
Corporate Culture

Listen Before You Leap

Mark Fitzgibbons
Mark Fitzgibbons
Communication Director, Employee Benefits

8.25 seconds.

That’s how long I have to get you to keep reading.

A recent report by Microsoft® compared the attention span of a human and a goldfish and found the two were disturbingly close. In fact, the goldfish beat us by over half a second. The Microsoft report claimed the average human attention span went from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. Those figures were compared to an average goldfish attention span of 9 seconds.

The challenge we all face today when trying to communicate is that we’re in constant competition for our audience’s attention, and we need to make sure we get and keep that attention for our message to have any effect.

Many of us think that communication is talking — and talk we do. We advertise, advise, argue, analyze, bloviate, criticize, interrupt, judge, moralize, opine, sell, threaten…and blog!

But, good communication requires good listening and understanding as well as talking. If you’re the only one talking, that’s a lecture. Effective communication is a two-way conversation. (Spoiler alert: Join in this communication conversation by commenting below.)

A Greek philosopher once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Most of us don’t listen very well. Or if we do manage to listen, we’re often just waiting until the other person finishes so we can say what is on OUR mind. The result of this nonlistening is we hold on to inaccurate assumptions and know our conversation partner (not audience) or understand their concerns — and we don’t tailor our message to keep their attention long enough to share our message.

So what to do? Here are some suggestions…

Face-to-Face Listening

To be a good listener, we must first pay attention. In a face-to-face situation, nonverbal components rule the communication roost:

  • Posture
  • Physical movements (fidgeting)
  • Eye contact
  • Mental “presence” and genuine interest

Verbal components of listening well include:

  • Using one or two words to encourage continued talking
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Knowing when to be silent

Organization-Wide Listening

On an organizational level, there are a number of formal and informal channels that can be used to ask questions, improve listening, and foster an ongoing conversation:

  • Employee surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Enterprise social network scans
  • Social media scans
  • Always-on or pulse surveys
  • Town hall meetings

Regardless of the channels your organization chooses, the strategy behind the conversation should include these components, courtesy of the Harvard Business Review:

  • Intimacy: Personal and direct communication that involves at least as much listening as speaking
  • Interactivity: Talking with, not to, employees
  • Inclusion: Engaging employees in organizational messaging and telling the company story
  • Intentionality: A clear agenda (intent) to provide order, meaning, and a means to derive relevant action from the discussion

What’s in it for Me?

With listening and understanding as your foundation, you’ll be able to identify “what’s in it for them” elements and keep their attention for more than 8.25 seconds — if you avoid the curse of knowledge, simplify your message, and make connections to bring everything together. But those are topics for another blog.

Until then, enough with the lecture! Let’s get a conversation going in the comments below. Tell me what you think. Have you found yourself in situations both as the “listener” and the “lecturer”? What tips do you have?

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