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Are they really listening?


Dawn Smith says 'lend me your ears' as she examines what can be done in the training room to encourage delegates to listen more effectively.


Universities such as Reading and Glasgow Caledonian are dishing out advice to students on how to improve their listening skills. The ability to listen effectively is a skill that can significantly improve academic achievement, says the advice from Reading, while in Glasgow, students are warned that listening is not a passive activity, but hard work that needs patience, sensitivity and practice.

Students are encouraged to link information to things they already know and think of ways to make the information relevant to them. They are urged to practice mentally summarising what the speaker is saying and listen for the main ideas. They are also advised to show in their posture that they are interested, maintain eye contact and use reassuring body language such as nodding in agreement.

A skill you can teach?

Such attentive listening would bring a tear of gratitude to the eye of most speakers - whether in the lecture theatre or training room - so the student is clearly not the only beneficiary of such advice. But since more attentive listening may help students absorb what's being said, perhaps there's a case for teaching listening skills within organisations to help staff get more out of training events?

"I don't actually believe that you can train someone to 'listen', only train them in techniques such as positive body language, affirmation and paraphrasing."

Rich Lucas, Supremacy Training Solutions

While not advocating such a move, Graham O'Connell, head of organisational learning and standards at the National School of Government, points out that in organisations, most listening skills training tends to focus on 'empathetic listening', such as might be covered on interpersonal skills programmes. The type of listening skills needed by students or delegates - listening for the facts, picking out and memorising or recording the vital parts - are not generally covered.

Independent L&D specialist Rus Slater doesn't believe there's a case for teaching listening as a separate skill. "Most organisations include some form of listening skills activities/information embedded in their performance management or other management training, but as a 'stand alone' it is not easy to justify," says Rus, who provides coaching, mentoring and training through his consultancy P3I.

Rich Lucas, freelance trainer and founder of Supremacy Training Solutions, argues that listening is not a skill you can teach. "I don't actually believe that you can train someone to 'listen', only train them in techniques such as positive body language, affirmation and paraphrasing," he says.

A slightly different view is taken by Mike Morrison, director of RapidBI Ltd. "I would argue that people already have all the listening skills they need," he says. "It is our job as trainers to engage them."

Stand and deliver

Mike believes that the key to engaging delegates is to be emotionally engaged as a trainer. "Delegates are more likely to listen if they hear passion in your voice," he says. "You need to find something to motivate yourself to be passionate about."

On a more practical level, keeping the session interactive so that delegates are not listening passively for too long is the classic strategy to avoid glazed eyes. However, views vary on how long is 'too long'. Graham O'Connell comments that "Some say 20 minutes is the maximum, but I think this varies enormously according to their interest in the topic, the interest in your voice and your ability to keep them actively thinking even if they are physically inactive."

Rus Slater believes: "The more I talk the less they will listen, so I absolutely fill my sessions with activity such as syndicate work, presentations etc. They will be more likely to listen to colleagues and to themselves."

Of course, some delegates are simply more likely to listen than others, because the 'stand and deliver' style of training suits them better. In an ideal world, training would be individually designed to match each delegate's learning style. But in the real world, trainers at times need to talk, and not everyone in their audience likes to sit and listen. Beyond brushing up on their presentation skills, what can a trainer do in this scenario to encourage delegates to listen more effectively?

Lend me your ears

"Trainers need to be aware that it is inevitable that delegates will 'zone out' at one point or another during training and provide exercises that will minimise this," says Rich Lucas. "A great way of showing delegates how well they really listen is to take them out one at a time and get them to relay to each other a list of instructions. This shows them that they have all heard the same thing but have assumed their own meaning."

"Trainers need to be aware that it is inevitable that delegates will 'zone out' at one point or another during training and provide exercises that will minimise this."

Graham O'Connell suggests that you can get delegates' attention while emphasising important points about focusing and paying attention, by showing them the classic'did you spot the gorilla' video clip. In this clip, viewers are asked to watch a group of people throwing a basketball to one another and to keep an eye on the ball. Meanwhile a man in a gorilla suit walks through the players, beats his chest, then saunters off. An experiment by Richard Wiseman, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, showed that most people watching this clip don't notice the gorilla. "Although this video clip is about observation and not listening, the same principle holds true," says Graham.

Tips to encourage listening

Simple things that can help to encourage listening include giving advice on note taking, telling stories rather than listing facts, and emphasising or highlighting the key things to listen out for, adds Graham.

Rich Lucas asks delegates questions to keep them engaged. "I say, 'What do you think' a lot when recapping, as people are more likely to listen to discussion than they are to a lecture," he says. Both Rus Slater and Mike Morrison suggest telling delegates that there will be a test or quiz at the end of the session. "Tell them there's a small prize," adds Mike.

Getting the environment right will also help. Rus Slater lists the main environmental barriers to listening as: "Noisy air con, delegates pagers/texts. Goldfish bowl meeting rooms. Traffic noise. Hotel staff bustling in with coffee/tea/lunch. Private conversations. Rude delegates who bring 'real work' in and do it during the event!" When it comes to the surroundings, however, Graham O'Connell warns that some people are more easily distracted by things in the environment than others. "Some research suggests that introverts listen best in a quiet environment, while extroverts actually enjoy a bit of background buzz (people talking, music, etc.)"

When you've lost them

Mike Morrison accepts that delegates will zone out or get restless from time to time, and gives them permission to do so. He hands out 'fiddle toys' such as stretchy animals and sweets at the beginning of a session, and asks delegates to use them whenever they need to. This stops them from fiddling with something that's likely to irritate their neighbours, such as clicking a pen. He even gives delegates permission to stand up and walk around if they want to. "Some people I train are not used to sitting down for hours on end. I tell them that if they need to stand up, they can. But they rarely do it."

Mike says 'fiddle toys' are also a good indicator of when a delegate's mind has wandered a long way away. "If they are just absentmindedly rolling the toy around in their hand I know things are OK, but if they start playing with two or three at once, I know I've lost them."

As for regaining the attention of the group, Rus Slater offers an offbeat tip: "People expect the 'presenter' to present," he says. "Go silent, perhaps in mid sentence. After about five seconds you normally have the undivided attention of anyone whose mind was wandering!"

When it comes to individuals, however, Mike Morrison warns against picking on the same delegate. "It might be perceived as bullying by the rest of the group," he says. "If you're training a group of 10 or 12 you can't necessarily meet everyone's expectations. If there is just one who doesn't seem to be listening, don't continually focus on them. Otherwise you might lose the others."

This feature first appeared on in August 2008.

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