Recently, Ben, Gordon, and I were discussing what we thought were the most important factors in creating effective collaboration. Gordon immediately answered, “listening.” That answer might not seem surprising coming from someone who is blind.


Gordon further observed, “I have witnessed some incredibly talented studio musicians be less than what they should be simply because they are not good listeners.” “If you don’t listen, or don’t listen well, it is impossible to make a positive contribution because you haven’t grasped what the artist’s intentions or goals are.”


Listening is a big part of collaboration. Unfortunately, effective listening isn’t so easy. Think about it, you start to learn to read in kindergarten and this continues through grade school. You eventually take a speech class. Listening class? Most of us have not been exposed to any formal education on listening.


Listening, however, has begun to be studied. Dr. Ralph G. Nichols of the University of Minnesota began testing students and studying listening in the 1940s. Dr. Nichols spent over 40 years studying listening and is credited with fathering the study of the field of listening. He was a founding member of an organization called the International Listening Association that continues today. Dr. Nichols shared:

The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

Professor Sara W. Lundsteen is credited by listening experts as providing the best definition of listening:

“The process by which spoken language is converted to meaning in the mind.”

Notice that her definition focuses in on communication between people. It isn’t difficult to interpret the sound of a distant train. We hear it, we recognize it, and usually our brain immediately dismisses it and it becomes background noise that hardly registers.

Numerous studies have shown that effective listening is difficult and is lacking in most societies. It is safe to say that most of us have heard during our lives something along the lines of “You never listen!”

Collaborators aren't born, they're made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment - and most of all, through habit.

Why is effective listening so difficult? The following are just a few contributing factors.

We aren’t taught to listen

We have reading class, writing class, and speech class. No listening class.

We think faster than we talk

Experts tell us we speak at about 125 words per minute but our brains have capacity to understand 400. This is what allows our mind to “drift off.”

We are inefficient listeners

Numerous studies have concluded that we retain about 25% of what we have heard after 48 hours.

We aren’t committed to listening

For example, someone knocks on your office door and your immediate goal is to get to the end of their communication.

We can’t wait to talk

Many times we don’t listen because we are so focused on what we want to say. We can’t wait to interrupt so that we get to talk.

Our Devices

This one is a newer & major disruptor of effective communication. Just picture yourself talking to someone who is looking at their device.  Enough said.

The above challenges, along with other listening impediments, can be overcome or at least improved upon.

William Ury, Co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project in a speech titled “The Art of Negotiation” states,” People think negotiation is about talking, but is is actually about listening.” He shares several key points about effective listening.

Listen more than you talk. Listen to understand, not refute. Listen from within their frame of reference, not yours. Listening conveys respect.

Listening is becoming more recognized as a crucial skill in the communication & collaboration process. Increasingly, universities, organizations, and consultancies all provide educational and improvement curriculums addressing listening.

Beyond that we can simply apply a little common sense and courtesy that will improve our ability to effectively listen. Effective listening is hard work and requires discipline! Most things do that are worthwhile. The following are a few simple practices that enhance listening and collaboration skills.

Listening is where Collaboration begins!

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