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TV, radio, traffic, cell phones, e-mails, the Internet- our minds are bombarded daily by constant noise and clutter. No wonder so many people find it increasingly difficult to listen and comprehend. Simple pieces of information such as names go "in one ear and out the other." Poor listening may have tragic consequences such as the Challenger disaster and the Potomac River crash of 1982, or it can result in smaller tragedies such as lost ...
TV, radio, traffic, cell phones, e-mails, the Internet- our minds are bombarded daily by constant noise and clutter. No wonder so many people find it increasingly difficult to listen and comprehend. Simple pieces of information such as names go "in one ear and out the other." Poor listening may have tragic consequences such as the Challenger disaster and the Potomac River crash of 1982, or it can result in smaller tragedies such as lost promotions, stalled marriages, and troubled children.
Rebecca Shafir assures us that we can transform every aspect of our lives, simply by relearning how to listen. THE ZEN OF LISTENING is grounded in the Zen concept of mindfulness, a simple yet profound way of learning how to filter our distractions and be totally in the present. Rather than a list of tricks, this book is an all-encompassing approach allowing you to transform your life.
Readers will be amazed at how simply learning to focus intently on a speaker improves the relationship, increases attention span, and helps develop negotiating skills. Learn the great barricades of misunderstanding, find out how to listen to ourselves, discover how to listen under stress, and boost our memory. This is a fun and practical guide filled with simple strategies to use immediately to enjoy our personal and professional lives to the fullest.
Creating a Mindset for Good Listening
If every time we met with someone and gave them our full and complete attention for four minutes come hell or high water, it could change our lives. —Leonard and Natalie Zunin, The First Four Minutes
Our goal in becoming mindful listeners is to quiet the internal noise to allow the whole message and the messenger to be understood. In addition, when we listen mindfully to others, we help quiet down their internal noise. When they notice that we are totally with them, people feel freer to cut out the layers of pretense to say what's really on their minds. As you read on, you will see mindful listening is a gift not only to yourself, but to others.
It is maddening to think of the knowledge that went in one ear and out the other, the relationships that went sour, or the opportunities missed because we were not better listeners. Over the decades our ability to talk has dramatically surpassed our ability to listen to one another. We can easily give someone a piece of our mind, but we have much difficulty taking in another's point of view. We can talk for hours on a given subject, but most of us can retain only a small fraction of a professor's lecture. Research shows that at least 40 percent of our waking hours are spent listening. Within a few minutes following a discussion, the average listener is able to recall only 25 percent or less of what he heard. As the day goes on, even that percentage diminishes considerably.
In the corporate world, poor listening is responsible for the loss of billions of dollars due to unnecessary mistakes, lost opportunities, and minimal effectiveness. Faulty listening is often responsible for the letter that needs to be retyped time and again, the team that cannot produce results, or the physician who faces a malpractice suit. In our personal lives, low self-esteem, divorce, or family conflicts can be attributed to poor listening skills. If the need to listen better continues to be a recurrent theme in your work and home life, then this book is for you!
The mindful-listening approach is a mindset for connecting with people and information that stands up to the challenges of communicating in the twenty- first century. Look what you can gain:
more fulfilling family, social, and professional relationships
increased attention span
better performance at interviews
more cooperation from others
stronger knowledge base
better negotiation skills
Chances are, you have chosen this book because quick-fix attempts at achieving these personal and professional goals have been unsuccessful. Perhaps someone chose this book for you! Some of the students in my listening classes sign up, not because their listening skills are poor, but because they live or deal regularly with very poor listeners. The reasoning is, if these poor listeners won't change, maybe they can learn ways to get through to them. Even if only one party is at fault, both the poor listener and the speaker suffer, as do the managers and employees, husbands and wives, parents and children. In this book you will learn some ways in which you can be a good example for the other half. If indeed you are the one taking responsibility for improving a relationship by learning to enhance your listening skills, perhaps that incorrigible other may start to sense your desire to understand him better. Exercising fair listening encourages others to give us a turn at presenting our point of view. Often, by being better listeners ourselves, we can accomplish much more than by trying to change others.
Poor listening gets in the way of getting things done effectively. We are frantic to maximize our effectiveness in our daily must-do activities. It is important to spend time with our families, stay in shape, and be productive at work. But instead of achieving fulfillment through these endeavors, frequently just the opposite occurs. Many of us become disconnected from family, friends, and customers. The contradictions abound foremost in the workplace. Company downsizing has forced us to see our customers as mere statistics—a sales call, a medical procedure, a drop-in. "Customer satisfaction is our number one priority," says the boss, "but don't forget to keep the numbers up, be a team player, and maintain quality!" Reconciling these seemingly disparate demands is within your grasp!
It is by unleashing our powers of mindful listening that we can reconnect with others and be efficient as well. By changing our mindset toward listening, every interaction becomes a memorable one, each day an adventure. Best of all, by using our listening abilities to their fullest, we can set an example for others, particularly our children. Think about how much richer their lives will be if they learn the art of mindful listening when they're young.
Many of us were conditioned to think that listening is a passive process, that it is the wiser person who does the talking.
Many learning specialists agree that a great number of children with learning disabilities have not been given adequate examples of good listening in the home. In 1995, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development completed a ten-year study that indicated that children are not getting enough interaction with parents or other adults. How can we expect our children to learn when we haven't taught them how to listen? The emphasis on computerized learning has been a boon to education in some respects. However, because of children's overexposure to fast-paced media (TV, video games, and computers) that reduce attention, listening, and concentration skills, educators are finding children more difficult to teach. One of the many challenges facing today's teachers is having to modify their teaching strategies to blend computer use with verbal interaction. Without a balanced approach, children may lose out on the development of interpersonal skills necessary to be successful in life. The personal interactions with teachers and other mentors throughout the years provide the groundwork for learning how to get along with adults other than our parents. In the classroom, students learn the give and take necessary to make and keep friends, how to successfully team up on projects—in short, how to get along with others. To allow technology to intrude upon that valuable education only furthers the growing trend of disconnectedness.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, dinner-table talk was a staple activity in middle-class America. TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver showed parents setting the stage for discussion about typical adolescent issues like peer pressures at school or jealousy between siblings. They showed children stating their feelings while parents listened with concern (they actually stopped eating!). The point was to illustrate how dinner-table discussions offered a family forum for character building. These forums addressed feelings and possible solutions—everyone participated. Of course, by the end of the program, everyone's problems were solved and all were happy again. The moral of these shows was to offer opportunities for caring discussion and put out the little fires before they get out of control.
Could schoolyard and family violence be mitigated by better listening? Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina found that a parent's presence in the home at dinnertime was associated with a reduced incidence of drug use, sex, violence, and emotional distress among teens. Could we ever have imagined the Beaver getting to the point where he finds a gun and shoots Eddie for not giving him a ride in his new sports car?
Unlike most families on TV at that time, both my parents worked full time and all of my siblings were involved in extracurricular activities very much like families of today. My parents' friends would have labeled us a type-A family back in those days. Yet somehow my parents saw to it that every night the family sat down together for dinner for at least thirty minutes. Some of my family members came and went according to their schedules, but everybody got in on at least one topic of discussion or shared one event of the day with two or more family members. There, we developed our verbal and reasoning skills, learned how to argue a point, build ideas as a team, speak openly about our strengths and weaknesses, and listen. Now that we are all on our own, I believe that our lives were shaped by the magic that transpired around that table every night at six o'clock.
Many of us feel that if we do most of the talking, we will be perceived as knowledgeable and dynamic. Yet the communication situations we avoid are those in which one person, oblivious to the realities of others, does all the talking. A good listener is easy to spot—he is usually someone we look forward to talking with and being around. A good listener is not only one who processes the spoken word and the meaning behind the words accurately, but one who makes the speaker feel valued by encouraging him to expand on his ideas and feelings. A good listener touches the lives of those to whom he listens.
TV interviewers like Barbara Walters, Charlie Rose, Oprah Winfrey, and Larry King are examples of good listeners. It was said that Ernest Hemingway had a way of listening with such intensity that the person doing the speaking felt supremely complimented. Listening intently even for a minute is one of the nicest gifts we can give to another human being.
The lack of self-listening is often the cause of communication breakdown. If we could hear our words and comments through the ears of our listeners, we would be appalled at the overgeneralizations, the inaccuracies, and the insensitive, negative comments we make about ourselves and others. Learning to carefully select our words plays a major role in presenting ourselves in a favorable light, getting along well with others, and effectively getting the job done. When we make self-deprecating remarks about our looks, intelligence, or competence, we reveal an unhealthy mindset, chip away at our self-confidence, and create the wrong impressions, setting the stage for us not to be taken seriously.
We need to listen to ourselves to be sure we choose words that truly represent our meaning. Are our explanations concise and to the point? We may use words or a tone of voice that offend or turn people off to our message. These destructive communication behaviors push the listener's limits and discourage hopes of future interaction. No wonder we become confused and annoyed with others when they don't respond according to our expectations. The listening mindset you are about to develop will also enable you to better tune into yourself and what motivates you to act the way you do.
Listening abilities are put to the test in adverse conditions. Stressful interactions may include asking for directions, a first date, or an important interview. The stress factor increases when we must deal with hostile customers or coworkers. Further escalation of emotions ensues with an overly assertive personality or a potentially violent one. When ideas and points of view collide, how well do we process the whole message without building up our defenses? A list of tricks will not assist us when listening under stress. Our success in these situations depends on the strength of our foundation as listeners—this includes breath control, ability to concentrate, and awareness of our barriers to listening and how we work with them, among other factors. Knowing how to listen well in less than optimal conditions is a valuable and necessary survival skill.
In order to reap the benefits of listening, we must let ourselves develop and expand our ability to concentrate. We should be able to sustain our focus for several minutes or as long as we choose, depending on the nature of the listening task. If the topic of conversation is light and familiar, concentration is much easier to sustain than if the material presented is dry and technical. Intent and interest in the subject matter also play a role in our willingness to concentrate. Stress, depression, and self-doubt have the potential to cripple our ability to attend to, much less concentrate on what someone is saying.
Many of my students in their forties or fifties take my listening course because they feel they are starting to lose their memories; they forget names, lose concentration, or miss details. Because of this concern, they are hesitant to take on new challenges like learning to use a computer or obtaining advanced degrees. In most cases, they are not on the verge of dementia. Rather, they have lost touch with the ability to focus for long periods of time. Other students wonder whether they have ADD (attention deficit disorder). These difficulties with concentration can affect our confidence for learning new tasks. The relationship between listening and memory is complex and beyond the scope of this book. However, a basic understanding of this relationship will better motivate us to apply some of the upcoming strategies.
Memory comprises three basic processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding requires us to pay attention. During the encoding process, sensory information (words, pictures, music, etc.) is perceived. This information enters our sensory memory, where it is held for about one second. (Think of sensory memory as surface memory.) If we choose to further preserve this bit of information—directions to a new restaurant, for example—we need to take it to the next level of processing called short-term memory (STM). For the direction "left on Lehman and right on Hathaway" to enter STM, we need to repeat or rehearse it aloud to ourselves for about fifteen seconds. Our STM is able to hold on to plus or minus seven bits of information at a time, equal to the average phone number. If we want to retain these directions for use again in the future, we need to take this direction to a even deeper level of memory called long-term memory (LTM). There are various methods for the transfer of information to LTM. Drawing a map, picturing familiar landmarks (the Dunkin Donuts will be on your right), or associating the street names with the names of familiar people, among other methods, can move those directions into long-term storage.
If we choose to remember or deeply process a phone number and put it in long-term memory, it may be necessary to make associations with other familiar numerical sequences. Do the four digits in a particular phone number (222-1812) remind us of an important year (the War of 1812), or is the pattern a visual one like 1-800-761-8008? Linking the memory of the interaction with the phone number is often helpful. If the discussion with this particular individual was a stormy one, then 1812 is a natural link. The process of associating new information with prior knowledge enables us to retrieve that information months or years later. We do not have to spend a lot of time to efficiently encode, store, and retrieve information (processing the directions to the restaurant from sensory memory to LTM took fewer than sixty seconds), but you must be able to concentrate.
Concentration is like a river. The stimulus or object of our attention may trickle into consciousness. Our interest heightens and other ideas (associations) enter our minds, similar to a stream fed by other streams. Unflustered by the obstacles in its path, the larger stream picks up strength and speed just as our enthusiasm hones our focus on the topic. As the stream becomes a river, the mind remains focused on the development of the thought or idea. That mental energy can be as powerful and sustaining as the undercurrent of a raging river. When someone speaks we can ignore the message, simply skim the surface, or follow the way of the river and concentrate.
The reality is that television, with its frequent commercial breaks, numerous choices (no thanks to the remote control), open-door policies, and our hectic, multifaceted lifestyles, has shortened our attention span and limited our opportunities for concentration. Fortunately, since most of our brains are still intact, it is possible to regain (or for many of us, uncover for the first time) the ability to focus our attention, concentrate, and restore confidence in our ability to learn.
Excerpted from The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir. Copyright © 2003 Rebecca Z. Shafir. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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