“It can be stated, with practically no qualification,” Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens write in a 1957 HBR article, “That people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.” In a study of thousands of students and hundreds of businesspeople, they found that most retained only half of what they heard — and this immediately after they’d heard it. Six months later, most people only retained 25%.
In this, I suspect the world has not changed much since 1957. So I dug into HBR’s archives for our best advice on the imperfectable art of listening. Here’s what I found.
It all starts with actually caring what other people have to say, argues Christine Riordan, Provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky. Listening with empathy consists of three specific sets of behaviors. First, there’s the actual intake of information — recognizing the verbal and nonverbal cues the other person is emitting. Then there’s processing, which is where we make sense of what the other person is saying. Finally, there’s responding. This is where you validate what they’ve said — and note that validating doesn’t mean you have to agree with it — by nodding, playing back what you heard, or otherwise acknowledging that you’re picking up what they’re putting down.