Listening and speaking are inextricably linked, as they are complementary elements in the communication process. For all practical purposes, one cannot take place without the other: we speak only when there is someone to receive our message – and we cannot listen unless someone has said something or provided some aural stimulus. Listening has been defined in a rather light- hearted vein as ‘what you do while awaiting your time to talk’. However, listening is far from being a passive activity. It must be pointed out that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Whereas ‘hearing’ is merely being aware of some sound impinging on our ears, ‘listening’ is a conscious effort involving mental activity to make sense of, and interpret the ‘message’, often against a particular background or within a certain perspective. As Nikki Giovanni, an American poet, has said, ‘I‘m glad I understand that while language is a gift, listening is a responsibility.’
It is interesting to note that we spend 40 to 50% of our total communication time, and one third of our working time, receiving information rather than transmitting it. But, despite the fact that listening is a fundamental and significant human activity, most people are not very good at it. They seem to lack the necessary skills, perhaps because, knowingly or unknowingly, they have neglected the cultivation and acquisition of these skills. This is borne out by the following facts: our intake is at or below 25%, that is about half of what is said during a ten-minute conversation. We forget half of that within 48 hours. We jumble up information, if called upon to reproduce it.
Living as we do in an era of communication, we are faced with additional challenges in the workplace where intercultural communication has become the norm. Improving and developing our listening skills thus assumes greater importance. In this context, it is well to bear in mind Plutarch‘s advice: “Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly”. Indeed, countless benefits accrue from listening effectively.
It may be recalled that listening is the first means of acquiring information in the case of very small children. Also, Second Language Acquisition researchers recognize the significance of the ‘silent period’‘: the initial stage in the process of language acquisition, when the learner confines himself to listening in order to obtain and assimilate information about the language. It is only at a later stage that there is a spurt in his language- producing activity.
Listening also protects us against the wiles of an unscrupulous speaker who presents matters of an unethical nature in a convincing and attractive manner. The mass media, particularly, use such strategies to mould thinking, tastes, styles, and opinions of the general public according to a predetermined pattern. A Spanish proverb effectively cautions us against such a thing: ‘Though the speaker be a fool, let the hearer be wise’. The process or act of listening encourages a person to use his discretion and judgment, and thus make a sensible decision, rather than passively accept whatever is forcibly thrust upon him.
It must be realised that much time and money can be lost as a result of poor listening habits. Also, strife, conflict, misunderstanding in interpersonal relationships are often due to faulty listening practices.
In the absence of fluency on the part of the speaker, the use of effective listening techniques on the part of the listener can help the communication situation. Of course, when faced with a fluent speaker, a good listener is likely to find the ‘message’ more interesting and informative, as he plumbs the deeper levels of meaning and significance and forms new associations and ideas. The listener is thus less prone to distraction, and more involved in reflection and critical analysis.
The practice of attentive listening thus brings with it a wealth of potential material that can be helpful at some time or other. Much of this can also be successfully employed in the business environment, where problems can be solved, suitable policies can be framed, and experiences shared. A good listener is definitely an asset to an organization. At the managerial level, being a good listener is even more important, since managers need to understand the emotional impact of a situation as much as the technical details, and take the necessary steps to promote the general interests of the employees. This, in turn, will lead to a smooth, harmonious functioning of the organization. Profits will inevitably follow, and the image of the organization will definitely go up in the public estimation.
In personal life, too, a good listener gets on better with people; her/his personality is appealing, her/his manner easy and friendly, and s/he tends to be accepted more readily in company.
Thus, developing effective listening skills ensures success at various levels. Interestingly, no monetary investment is necessary. All that is required is determination coupled with practice and perseverance. To be beneficial, however, efforts must be in the right direction. In this connection, it is well to understand the nature of listening, in the first place