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Listening And Its Effects on Learning

by Andrew Gideon, MS

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably spent more time in a classroom than you care to remember. It’s reasonably likely that you continue to spend time in similar settings, be they conferences, meetings, sales presentations, or the like. You’ve a lifetime of history listening to speakers, reading materials, and watching presentations, all in the quest for information.

But do you really know what you’re doing?

Certainly, we have a name for this: learning. But do you really know how to learn as well as you can? Have you ever even considered the questions, "How well can I learn?" or "How can I learn better?"

Despite the thousands of hours that most of us have in learning situations, we’ve really never learned how to learn. It was always something that we just sort of figured out on the fly.

But, there is a technology that exists which can make a dramatic difference in how you learn, which is not a study method, a memory aid, or a way to read faster. The major component of this technology has a deceptively simple name. In fact, you probably think that it is something you already do. It is called listening.

Don’t let the name fool you. It may be that what you’re doing when you think that you’re listening is something completely different. I know that what I used to call "listening" is certainly not what I mean when I use the word now.

I recently attended a business workshop given by Ariel and Shya Kane, entitled "Transformation in the Workplace". As part of the seminar we explored what it means to truly listen, in other words, intentionally hearing what is being said from the point of view of the person speaking.

How many times do you remember sitting in a presentation, class or even casual conversation and hearing something that gave you an idea? It happens to me a lot. I follow the thoughts, seeing what this new information might mean, or how I might use it. By the time my attention returns to the speaker, I’ve become totally lost.

Also, if the speaker says something that sounds anything like something I’ve previously learned, I think, "I know that" to myself. Since I already know - or since I believe that I do - I don’t bother to hear it. Since I’m not really hearing it, there is no chance that I can see what the speaker is saying that is new, or different. Even if I did happen to already know the facts involved, the speaker’s perspective is different from my own. Just in truly listening, I may have acquired a new insight into things.

So by that one "I know that" thought, I am completely closing myself off from the possibility of hearing, and therefore learning.

Similar to that are either the thoughts "I agree" or "I disagree". In both cases, what is being said is converted to be like - or unlike - something that I already know. Again, this is closing off the possibility of truly hearing.

Another hindrance to listening that we discussed in the Transformation in the Workplace Seminar is having an agenda. For example, let’s consider a sales presentation for a product that I’ve already decided that I want. I am going to be listening through my agenda, storing information that I can use to make the case that the product should be purchased. I’m also going to be filtering out any information that might serve to change my mind - or at least cause me to further question my purchase. Because all information is passing through the filter of my agenda, I’m not truly listening to the speaker, and I’ve lost the opportunity to learn.

Of course, this filtering process works exactly the same way when my agenda is to not purchase the product.

Another way that I haven’t listened at meetings, for example, is by practicing what I am going to say while someone else is speaking. This is especially true when I have a planned presentation to give. I generally don’t even remember who spoke before me, much less what they have said during their talk. This is because I am busy thinking about what I am going to say, essentially practicing my talk in my mind.

One final hindrance that I want to mention is "feeling badly" for not listening. This punishing of myself is just another way to avoid listening and learning, and does not accomplish anything positive. When you notice that you’re not listening, you are at a point where you have a choice. You can feel badly, or you can move your attention away from yourself and back onto the speaker. By choosing wisely, you are immediately back in a state where you are listening and learning.

Since attending the Kanes’ course I have discovered that listening goes far beyond just learning. It is about truly hearing what is being said, whether it is coming from a teacher, a coworker, a supervisor, or a client. The simple act of truly listening allows a dramatic shift - or transformation - in what you can accomplish around your workplace.

I urge you to try it yourself. And then, when someone tells you how you’ve suddenly become so much more effective and productive on your job, you will really be able to hear them.

Andrew Gideon has a Master’s Degree in Computer Science. He is the Vice President and Co-owner of TAG Online, a World Wide Web provider and software development corporation.

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