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Published:October 23rd, 2007 15:30 EST
Effective Listening is a Critical Skill

Effective Listening is a Critical Skill

By Terry Sumerlin (Mentor/Columnist)

With some things, there is an expected and natural response. For instance, if you toss something in another`s direction, you`re not surprised when the person reaches out to catch it. Similarly, when we smile others usually smile back. What about when we speak or when someone speaks to us? It seems that listening would be the natural response. Too often, it`s not.

That doesn`t mean that we fail to look at the speaker or to receive sounds. We might even give appropriate responses. However, effective listening demands so much more of us. Let`s look at those demands.

First of all, effective listening demands undivided attention. Many years ago, I worked for a barber who would get so engrossed in what he was telling a customer that he would shut off his clippers, stop working and stand in front of his customer. There he would hold court. I wonder how a customer would feel if I turned off my clippers and did the same thing just to listen to him. You might also ask yourself the same type of question with respect to your customers, employees, spouse, children and friends. Not only is such treatment a high compliment. Undivided attention greatly reduces misunderstandings. Wandering eyes and busyness, on the other hand, are insulting and constitute ineffective listening.

Secondly, let`s think about listening in relation to proper use of the eyes. Studies have shown that confident people tend to look others in the eye for approximately seven seconds and then look away for about seven seconds before looking back. Looking away, however, doesn`t mean a distracted type of looking about. Nor should we be looking at people as if to bore a hole through them. We should be looking as a means of listening. The eyes tell us many things that the ears do not. The ears don`t pick up body language, gestures, facial expressions and overall demeanor. Yet, they all affect meaning.

The third factor affecting how well we listen is the condition of the mind. Our auditory system doesn`t work properly if there is a short circuit in the brain. Similarly, if our minds are not open we don`t listen well. The result can be what our spouses sometimes call selective listening. As an illustration, I hear Astro announcers on TV just fine. I tend not to hear Sherry very well, though, when she tells me something during a game. I also don`t hear very well when I`ve already made up my mind on the matter. Like concrete, sometimes my mind is all mixed up and permanently set. That`s also when concrete appears to be in my ears. Effective listening requires open-mindedness.

Most importantly, effective listening involves the heart. This reminds me of one of my favorite people, Art Linkletter. He is such a great listener. I fondly remember, as a child, watching his House Party and his wonderful interviews with children.

One day, Art had an especially interesting conversation with a little boy. The conversation went somewhat in this manner:

"What is your name?" Art asked.


"How old are you, Tommy?


"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be an airplane pilot," Tommy replied.

"Wow, that`s great! Would you like to pretend right now you`re an airplane pilot, Tommy?"

The boy smiled and nodded in approval.

Art then said, "Okay. Let`s pretend that you`re flying a plane with two hundred passengers, across the ocean, and suddenly realize your engines are no longer working. What would you do?"

After thinking for a moment, Tommy replied, "First, I would put on the fasten seat belt sign. Then I would parachute out."

The studio audience roared with laughter. But, Art never took his eyes off the little boy. When the laughter ended, Art looked into the tear-streaked face of the little boy and asked, "Tommy, why would you parachute out?"

"To go get fuel, of course."

Art got the rest of the story because he listened not just with his ears and eyes, but with his heart. That kind of listening will help us form better relationships both in and out of the workplace.

BARBER-OSOPHY: Good listening comes from good people.


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