Sixty years ago in the USA, "American Bandstand" first appeared on television; audiences flocked to movie theatres to see "The Three Faces of Eve" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai." The average yearly wage was about $4550, a gallon of gasoline 24 cents, the average car $2750. A loaf of bread cost 19 cents, and a gallon of milk, $1. Things have certainly changed.
But perhaps not everything. Also sixty years ago, Professor Ralph G. Nichols and consultant/co-author Leonard A. Stevens published an article in the "Harvard Business Review" that detailed their studies of listening skills—or, more rightly, the lack thereof. Taking a business perspective from start to finish, the authors present a list of ineffective listening practices, attributing them primarily to the gap between the rate at which humans speak and the rate at which humans think. Because of that gap, they write, "we can listen and still have some spare time for thinking." Too often, that time is used to think about matters unconnected to what a speaker is saying. Instead, we daydream or select a restaurant for Saturday night's dinner or plan tomorrow's schedule.
The key to listening better is to channel that spare thinking time toward a series of activities that help you interact with the messages being spoken rather than being distracted by the random drift of your mind.
Using what has been said, use some of that spare thinking time to calculate what will be said next, to anticipate the direction of the argument, possible messages, likely support. Whether you are right or wrong, anticipating helps you stay absorbed in what you're listening to. If your predictions prove right, then you know you are tracing well the organization and point of the speaker's communication. If your predictions don't bear out, adjust your understanding as you listen to get back on the speaker's track.
But also put what has been said into your own words—paraphrase messages, points, and support. Summarize. Don't wait until the end of a talk, presentation, or conversation to attempt to review what you've heard. If you do, you will already have forgotten much of what was said earlier. Such active listening helps you create a map or "shadow" of what you've heard right after you've heard it, each part of the map or shadow extending toward a final understanding that is later more easily recalled than if you'd waited until the end to form it.
If you focus too much on the details of what you are hearing, you're likely to miss what's most important—the major claim, assertion, thesis, message. Hear beyond the facts. "Grasping ideas, we have found," Nichols and Stevens write, "is the skill on which the good listener concentrates. He remembers facts only long enough to understand the ideas that are built from them. But then, almost miraculously, grasping an idea will help the listener to remember the supporting facts more effectively than does the person who goes after facts alone."
Since 1957, much has indeed changed. For many of us, though, the ability to listen well and effectively seems not to have been among those changes—ways of improving listening skills are still discussed in business articles, blogs, magazines, journals, and books. But unlike the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, this change is one we can each control.