Two Ears – One Mouth: Are You Listening?

By on Sep 18th, 2013.

Listening-Pup-300x219Two Ears and Only One Mouth: Are You Listening?

by Sherry Lowry/The Lowry Group

It has been said that there is a reason why humans have been given two ears and only one mouth. Listening is a crucial activity yet one we devote so little effort to improving. It is essential for building healthy relationships and successful partnerships. Here are some important facts and techniques that can help improve your listening and interpersonal skills.

We spend 80 percent of our waking time involved in four communications tasks: reading, writing, speaking or listening.

Of these four activities, listening accounts for 50 percent of our communication time. We give little attention to this part of the communication process, simply taking it for granted that everyone knows how to listen. Listening is such a passive activity, we don’t pay attention to it. In fact, most of us find the prolonged concentration required for truly effective listening too hard to maintain.

Consider this: We only retain 25 percent of what we hear. Why?

The average person speaks at about 130 words per minute. Our thinking speed is about 500 words per minute. Consequently, we jump ahead of what is actually being said. This causes our minds to wander and we are actually thinking about other things, such as what we are going to say next.

Here are other things that interfere with effective listening– and consequently result in poor communications and poor interpersonal relationships:

  • We don’t clear our minds before entering into a conversation or listening to a person’s presentation. Many people will multi-task, especially while on the phone. Even in a face-to-face exchange, some people multi-task in their heads, solving problems and making lists while the other person gets to their point (which we have decided we already know)!
  • We experience emotions which distract us from listening further. It doesn’t take much of a trigger for our feelings to pop up. A look, a phrase, and we are off and running with anxiety, fear, or anger. Our ability to listen is seriously impaired when we are distracted by feelings, especially those we wouldn’t want to admit to.
  • We are thinking about our reply. We are so concentrated on making a rebuttal, or on sharing a similar experience, we cease listening to the speaker, and may not even hear important information that makes our response inconsequential or inappropriate. We miss opportunities to build and strengthen relationships by jumping in and speaking too soon.
  • We are thinking about the subject from our own perspective rather than trying to understand it from the speaker’s point of view. Our perception may so differ from the perception of the talker that a totally different interpretation of the information may occur. Our minds need to be open and exploring new information rather focusing on what we know.
  • While everybody “knows” how to listen, not everybody practices the following effective listening techniques which can rapidly improve communications, strengthen relationships and form strong interpersonal skills for work and family success.

What is Active Listening?

The process called active listening involves the listener paying full attention to the speaker, and then summarizing or reflecting back what he or she has heard without evaluating or interpreting. This allows further clarification from the speaker if necessary. It also brings in this important element into the exchange:

Speaker A knows what Listener B has heard, AND knows that Listener B is taking the time to fully understand before responding.

This rarely seems to happen in our fast-paced environments where people talk over one another and interrupting is no longer the social faux pas that is was.

In active listening, it is important to learn to summarize and reflect smoothly, without appearing to mimic or repeat back in a robotic fashion. Useful phrases are:

  • “As I understand it, what you are saying is ….”
  • “So your point is that ….”

Non-Verbal Communications

Another part of effective listening is non-verbal communication. A listener should be making eye contact with the speaker about 60 to 80 percent of the time, at least in Western cultures. Nodding and shaking the head is usually appropriate to indicate receptiveness and understanding. Of course, it also indicates agreement or disagreement and can therefore interrupt the speaker.

An important way to establish fast rapport with a speaker is to mirror the speaker’s body language, although it would be ineffective to mimic their posture exactly.

Research has shown that only 7 percent of what we take in from a speaker is from the actual words; the rest is non-verbal. The tone of voice of the speaker accounts for 38 percent of the message received. Over 55 percent of our perception of the message comes from the speaker’s body language.

This means how something is said is far more important than the actual words. This also means to be a really effective listener, one must “listen” to the non-verbals as well. This means being tuned in to what is being said and what is not being said.

Which brings this discussion to a really important part of listening: asking questions. It is not enough to assume you know what the person means. Non-verbals can lead you to “hear” something that is not being said. Asking questions deepens the discussion and explores more of what the person means.

Some useful questions are:

  • “Can you give an example of this?”
  • “Tell me more about that…”

Here is a helpful table of actions to improve your listening skills from

Rarely do people take the time to reflect on the quality of their listening skills. In fact, the only time we may become aware of them is when there has been a breakdown in communications, but by then we are in defensive mode instead of learning mode.

How well do you listen? When was the last time you asked your spouse, your boss, or a trusted peer for feedback on your communication skills? For most of us, this is far too risky. Talking with your personal coach can help you practice active listening and is a safe way to improve without risk.



Cartwright, T. (2003). Managing Conflict with Peers. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., Covery, S.R. (2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Scott, S. (2004). Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time. Berkley, CA: Berkley Publishing Group.

Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., Fisher, R. (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most. New York: Penguin Books.

Tannen, D. (2001) You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Quill edition.

Tannen, D. (1999). The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue. New York:Ballentine Books.

Ursiny, T. (2003). Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run than Fight. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.

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