Six Reasons People Don't Listen at Work... and Some Interesting Things You Can Do About It

Carla Rieger

Visitors: 413

It’s frustrating when your co-workers, teenager or even your dog won’t listen. While you can’t control how they receive what you say, you can control how you send it. Here are a few tips on why people don’t listen and what you can do to change it.

1. Short Attention Spans

Problem: When asked to guess the average adult attention span, most people say around thirty minutes. According to statistics, however, the average adult attention span is actually only seven seconds. That’s right! Every seven seconds you go away somewhere. You think about something else. In fact, you could actually be taking a mental break right now. It is a normal part of how the brain integrates external stimuli – like when your computer starts defragging for a moment while you type.

Solution: It helps to pause from time to time when you speak. This allows people to integrate your information or ask a clarifying question. Also, include examples to anchor your concepts. For example (see-I’m doing it now!), a concept without an example is like tree without roots, a house without a foundation, or Sonny without Cher. It just doesn’t have as much staying power.

2. Too Many Distractions

Problem: I was in a meeting the other day and five people coughed, four people side talked, three cell phones rang, two people went to the restroom, and a partridge did email on his PDA. Distractions are a big part of modern life.

Solution: Your best bet is to acknowledge the distractions in a playful way. A manager who recently led a meeting I attended did this. When a cell phone rang, he grabbed for it and said, “Hello, Greg is in a meeting right now and he forgot to turn off his cell phone. So, please call back in a minute and leave a message. Beep. ” That prompted everyone to turn off their phones.

3. Lack of Training

Problem: Few of us were formally taught how to listen. You probably took Reading 8, Writing 11, but did you ever take Listening 10? Its little wonder listening is challenging.

Solutions: Quite accidentally, I learned how to listen by trying meditation. After a five-day retreat, I went to visit my aging father who was hard of hearing. My habit was to sit vacantly for hours while he complained about his arthritis, the error on his bank statement, and how hard it is to find good slippers. On this occasion, I surprised myself by totally paying attention to him with patience and compassion. After about ten minutes of complaining he suddenly changed tracks and started telling me fascinating stories about his childhood. Then he cranked up his hearing aid—and asked about me! Learn how to give people your full, undivided attention and be ready for some pleasant surprises.

4. Language Barriers

Problem: The world of business is fast becoming a multicultural world. Although English is the default language of commerce, many people in your audience may speak English only as a second language. Last month I was addressing a large insurance company where most attendees turned out to be new immigrants from China. I used the expression “getting jiggy with it”, and I saw people rifling through their dictionaries. This prompted me to say “I’m sorry, that went way over your head”, and a number of people looked up at the ceiling.

Solution: If your listeners are ESL or have a more basic educational background, you need to simplify your language. Use much more literal descriptions rather than cultural expressions. Use facial and body language to express humor, and fewer words.

5. Unchecked Assumptions

Problem: Back in the 70s, Gilda Radner a comedienne who regularly performed on Saturday Night Live was well known for her popular character Emily Litella, a social activist with a hearing problem. Her causes included such important issues as violins on television, Soviet jewelry and endangered feces. Believe it or not, those Emily Litella types can be found in your audiences.

Solution: One way to clear up false assumptions is to state your point in many different ways, then ask for summarizing statements from your listener. For example, “I just want to make sure you understand what I’m trying to say. Can you repeat back to me what you think I just said?” You would be surprised how often people have completely misinterpreted you, especially if the issue is complicated, or a touchy subject.

6. No Reason to Listen

Problem: Finally, the main reason people don’t listen is because you haven’t answered their favorite question: “What’s in it for me?” Solution: Before you start a long-winded monologue, tell your listener why you need their attention and make sure they understand how it will be benefit them. For example, “I’d like to tell you about this free software that will block all the spam before it gets to your Inbox…interested?” That will give you much better results than “When I was a youngster and I sat down in front of my first computer, I asked myself-how can I make this machine work for me? Then in 1972…” In general, put yourself in your listener’s shoes before you talk. And just remember the greatest of all wisdom-no one ever listened himself out of a job.

Carla Rieger is an expert on creative people skills at work. If you want a motivational speaker, trainer, or leadership coach to help you stay on the creative edge, contact Carla Rieger.

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