Listening is one of our most important communication skills.

When group sessions were conducted in a community-based breast cancer support group in Vancouver, British Columbia, women were asked: (a) What were the most helpful things their doctor said or did at the time of their diagnosis? (b) What does a good intervention feel or look like? They were requested to describe behaviors and attitudes they would like to influence in medical students who in the future might be communicating with women facing a diagnosis of breast cancer. Positive experiences with physicians were described as communication established using active listening, awareness of the women’s knowledge of their illness, honesty, and partnership. Physicians who demonstrated interest in their patients as individuals and who used touch to communicate caring were observed as compassionate communicators. Not unexpected, similarities were noted between the participants’ positive experiences with their own physicians and the behaviors and attitudes preferred in future physicians. Again, “listening” was rated as most important, followed by willingness to determine the each patient’s knowledge level.

Various studies have noted that many of us spend the majority of our waking hours using various types of communication. These include writing, reading, speaking, and listening. It has been noted that many of us are poor and inefficient listeners.


Several reasons are possible.


Listening training is inaccessible


Even though listening is a communication skill we use often, it is also the skill in which we have had the little preparation. From my own experiences, I recognize that I have had more formal training in other communication skills — writing, reading, and speaking. Actually, it appears very few individuals have had any comprehensive training in listening.

It’s not tough to find a workshop that makes available the opportunity to develop our writing and speaking skills. But it is difficult to locate similar programs to improve listening skills.


The speed of thought is faster than the speed of speaking


An additional motive for poor listening skills is that we can think faster than others speak. Many of us are fluent when remaining at a rate of about 125 words per minute. Conversely, we have the mental capability to understand someone speaking at 400 words per minute, but this is not possible.

This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that when we listen to another speaker, we are expending about 25 percent of our mental capacity. We are left with 75 percent to do something else with. So, our minds begin to wander.

This means we need to make the determination to listen carefully and focus more of our mental capacity on the act of listening. If we do not focus, we quickly find that our minds have evolved toward other ideas.

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