Is anybody listening?

The scarcest resource in the land isn't gas or oil - it's attention.

The scarcest resource in the land isn't gas or oil – it's attention. Companies compete for consumer attention in the marketplace. Students compete for company and agency attention in the job market. Teachers compete for students' attention in the classroom. We all compete to be heard. So we talk, text, and tweet. But who's listening in the land of the short attention span?  

We have a serious attention deficit, even though listening occupies more than 60% of an average workday and is closely linked to success, according to Harris and Nelson (2008). Best-selling author Dr. Stephen Covey claims listening is fundamental to several habits of highly effective people. Listening is crucial to understanding, negotiating, receiving, and giving feedback, managing conflicts, and making others feel important. Yet, people are only about 33% efficient in listening (Burley-Allen, 2001).

Why? Distractions, lack of interest, too much talking, and prejudice are the usual culprits. But there's another reason: we simply don't study or practice our listening skills. We willingly invest hours, workshops, and even whole courses to develop our writing, editing, design, and presentation skills in education and practice. However, few devote any time to formally develop listening skills. Boston University professor Don Wright claims that the two “Ls” in our professional field are too often taken for granted and overlooked – leadership and listening. Yet they are linked: great leaders are often great listeners.

Dartmouth Professor Marshall Goldsmith, personal “coach” to dozens of CEOs, underscored the power of listening at the recent spring conference of the Arthur W. Page Society. He said that leaders could make an immediate and positive difference at work and home if they changed just one bad habit or behavior. He pointed to not listening as one of the most common bad habits.  

What's the first step to better listening? Stop talking and texting, he said. That's good advice at all levels. Our world is so noisy and cluttered with fast-moving images that listening and attention just get lost. We might be amazed at how some problems and conflicts disappear when we listen effectively, hear what others say, and then respond.   

Bruce Berger, Ph.D., is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously, he was VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals, and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu.

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