Social work students were learning the value of reflective listening — summarizing what someone has said to show you heard them accurately. At the conclusion of several practice sessions, each student was asked to choose someone with whom they could practice their new skills. One student, Mary, chose her 8-year-old neighbor.

“Hi Jimmy,” she began. “How have things been going?”

“Not very good,” Jimmy responded.

“You haven’t been doing too good?” Mary questioned.

“No, I have been in trouble with my mom most of this week.”

“You have been in trouble with your mom?”

“Yes, and it’s not my fault.”

“Not your fault?”

“Mary, you seem to have the same problem my mom tells me I have,” Jimmy exclaimed. “It seems we both don’t hear too well.”

Kenneth Haseley, a communications professor at Ivanovo State University in Russia, offers some very interesting statistics on listening: “Most of us spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking time communicating; nearly half of it — some 45 percent — is spent listening. But we are poor listeners. We listen at an efficiency rate of only 25 to 50 percent. One reason for this is that the average person speaks at a rate between 100 and 200 words per minute (wpm), but we can hear at a rate of at least 600 wpm. That leaves a lot of time for our minds to wander. When someone is talking, most of us are thinking about how we’re going to respond.”

His advice? “Take notes. Repeat or paraphrase what the speaker has said. Ask questions. Ask the speaker to clarify or elaborate on what was said. Don’t interrupt. Look at the speaker.”

Listening at work is an important skill to develop. You need to listen well for many reasons, for one, so that you can understand others. Also you need to know what it is that you are supposed to do, so that you can predict and prevent possible problems and so that you can set your goals for the future in a positive and realistic manner.

“Learn to listen,” says author H. Jackson Brown Jr. “Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly.”

Listening can be hard work, and some people are more challenging to listen to than others. But when you find yourself tuning out what someone is saying, you should ask yourself why. Are you tuning them out because what they are saying is irrelevant or boring? Or are you tuning them out because you don’t want to hear what they are saying?

Listening goes both ways. If you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them.

Mackay’s Moral: Two ears, one mouth. Nature’s way of telling you to listen more than you talk.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail