Listening Intelligence Blog

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Listening: The Other Half of the Communication Equation

Posted by Allison O'Brien on Apr 10, 2020 11:05:00 AM
Allison O'Brien

The first time you meet someone new in a business or personal setting, the first question typically asked is, “What do you do for work?”

When I say, “I teach listening,” they usually perk up, lean in, and often laugh and say, “Oh man do I need you! I’m a terrible listener!” or “We really need you at my company. No one listens.”

So to that first response I say, “There’s no such thing as a good or bad listener. Listening is a brain-based habit. We develop habits over time and the good news is you can change a habit if you put some intentional effort towards it. It’s hard and takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

To the second reaction I say, “I agree. Every company needs the work I do because there’s a huge cost to poor listening.”

In fact, 70% of small to medium sized businesses say “ineffective communication” is their primary problem. A study by SIS International reported that SMBs spend 17.5 hours per week clarifying miscommunications. This translates into annual costs of $524,569 due to lost productivity. That same figure grows to $37 billion in Fortune 500 companies!

Given the costs, it makes sense to put some time and effort into improving the way teams communicate, specifically how they leverage listening to improve business results.

Unfortunately, listening and communication are often considered to be “soft skills” in the workplace, leading companies to invest more time and money into technical and sales training. The misperception is that “hard skills” are believed to translate directly into profitability, whereas “soft skills” aren’t perceived to directly contribute to the bottom line. One explanation is that we live in a culture that values speed and there is a systemic belief that slowing down for what is perceived as non-essential training means decreased productivity.

It has been proven, however, that listening is actually a hard skill that drives ROI and business results. Companies with highly effective communicators have had a 47% higher total return to shareholders compared to the least effective communicators. These same companies are three and a half times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers.

If companies want to increase bottom line, they have to slow down and invest training and development dollars into improving communication and specifically developing Listening Intelligence, the skill and agility we develop over time when we gain greater awareness of our individual listening preferences and apply that understanding when communicating with our colleagues and teams.

Here are 2 things you can do to improve Listening Intelligence within your organization:

1. Embrace the full communication equation.

Speaking is only 1/2 of the conversation. People spend between 70-80% of their workday engaged in some form of communication, and approximately 55% of that time is devoted to listening.

We spend so much time and effort thinking about how to present information, but very little awareness is placed on how we receive it. As a result, we don’t even realize we’re usually missing part of what’s being communicated. Have you ever left a meeting thinking everyone is aligned and it becomes clear later that people are going forward in completely different directions? Our unconscious listening biases can explain what we take away from conversations and then how we apply what we hear, which can lead to misallocated time and resources due to misunderstandings.

If we want to create more valuable, collaborative and innovative conversations, we need to put more energy into how we listen than how we speak.

2. Devote time and money towards formal listening training.

Research shows that people habitually listen to and for different things and that’s why we walk away from conversations and meetings with completely different take-aways of what’s been said.

In 2010 it was estimated that 11 million meetings happen daily in the US (3 billion per year). What if we were able to communicate very clearly in our meetings so that we didn’t have to spend 17.5 hours of our workweek clarifying miscommunications? What if we left meetings with every member of the team sharing a common understanding of intended outcomes and specific deliverables? That would allow us to be accountable to each other without having to spend valuable time with rework.

Every one of us has a unique listening style that determines what we tend to listen to and for, what we tend to miss, and what might have us shut down and stop listening altogether. In the context of a meeting, if we are all paying attention to different things, we are missing others. When information has to be repeated, the time of all group members is wasted. In a 6-person team, for example, repeating 5 minutes of information wastes 30 minutes of work time. 

The ECHO Listening Profile is one tool of many that can be used in training and development to help teams better understand how to communicate more effectively, making more efficient use of time and resources, while reducing stress in the process.

While it feels counterintuitive, I encourage companies to “slow down to speed up.” Take the time to invest in formal listening training to improve the other half of communication within your organization, then notice what happens to the bottom line.


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Topics: Listening for Business, Listening, Assessments, Communication, Performance, Active Listening