“Yes, I hear you” (but I won’t remember or understand what you’ve just said)

Listening, really listening, is a skill. It’s not just about hearing – it’s also about understanding. Sadly, we’re losing our ability to listen. In part this is because we’re not adjusting to the environment around us, and we’re not utilizing tools that allow us to properly tune in.


The English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson recently explained how college students suffer from “cognitive impatience.” They no longer have the patience to read longer, more difficult texts, he said. Today’s students, it has been suggested, cannot read with the critical analysis required to understand the complex arguments often found in more demanding texts. 

Skim reading, reduced listening

This isn’t an indication of decreasing mental faculties, but perhaps has more to do with how we use our time and how we have too much information to absorb. Studies have shown that many now read by skimming the text – looking for key words as they go. This reduces reading time, but doesn’t allow us to grasp the full information or meaning of the words before us.

What does this have to do with you, and business service provision? Well, a similar problem is happening with regards to the spoken word – we’re no longer able to take in what we hear. To truly listen is to understand, and we’re finding it ever harder to listen.

Just as skim reading limits the information you absorb and comprehend, reduced listening leaves you with just a small percentage of what you were told – a deadly situation for companies hoping to offer, for example, a high degree of customer care.

Now more than ever, when we listen we’re fed large amounts of data. But we struggle to hold onto this information. Noted speaker, author and audio expert Julian Treasure sounded the alarm back in 2011. He gave an insightful TED talk, and explained how we spend 60% of our time listening, but retain just 25% of what we hear.

This isn’t due to what Edmundson calls cognitive impatience, but rather what we could call “cognitive interference.”

There are just too many distractions

The world we live in gets noisier and busier by the day. If things were bad in 2011, just imagine what the situation is like now. Offices are more densely populated and loud, and calls last longer and are more demanding. Jabra research* shows that 25% of Call Centric workers say office noise ruins their productivity. Having too much on their plate is also a disruptor to their work – 19% say that they have too many calls to take, and 22% say they receive too many distracting emails during the day.

Back in the early 90s, Stephen Hawking, the late theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author, took part in TV commercials for British Telecom. “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking,” he said, urging as to “make sure we keep talking.”

Talking, of course, is easy. Most of us like to talk, and some of us love hearing the sound of our own voice. But what Hawking was really telling us to do, was to keep ‘listening’.

In business, if we lack the ability to clearly listen and understand our customers’ needs, wants and pains, our salespeople can’t sell, cross-sell, or upsell our products. Never was this more pronounced than when clients reach out to make one-to-one contact – as they do when phoning a contact center, for example. When a customer dials your number, the first thing they want is for your agents to listen.

They call because the issue they’re experiencing is unique to them and requires the intervention only a human can provide. They want someone to listen intently and resolve their issue – and as quickly as possible.

Listen up. Solutions are at hand

The art of listening might be declining, but we have the power to reinvigorate this vital skill. There are two ways to improve things:

Use audio technology designed to help you listen. It does this by offering noise cancellation, advanced speaker and microphone technology to improve call clarity, and wireless solutions and intelligent software integration – all geared around making sure the heart of someone’s focus is on the conversation they’re having.

Exercise your listening muscles. Even though we’ve been doing it since before we were born, listening is a skill we nevertheless need to develop. Just as being a good speaker, conversationalist or writer takes effort, so too does being an outstanding listener.

Train your teams

Julian Treasure can take it from there. His TED talk provides simple exercises for resetting our ears, making sure we’re primed and ready to listen. It offers techniques to help filter out distracting noise and interruptions, helping you to get in the best position to listen intently.

He also outlines an effective strategy for listening called RASA. This is the way that we receive information, show that we appreciate what we’re hearing, summarize what has been said, and ask questions afterwards.

Hawking’s advice was for us to “keep talking” if we want to achieve. We think that’s advice your business should really be listening to.

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk, and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together… and build the impossible.”

Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018


 * Jabra 2017 Q3 Call Centric survey