Thinking About Listening – I Hear You Loud and Clear

I once took a class entitled “Oral Communication.” The specific thing that I remember above all others is that we only hear about 25% of what other people are saying. It turns out that it’s even less than that.

We hear only half of what is said to us, understand only half of that, believe only half of that, and remember only half of that. *

So, let’s do that math: half of 50% (hear) = 25% (understand); half of that = 12.5% (believe); half of that = 6.25% (remember). What??!!!


I don’t guess any of us should be surprised by these numbers. Think about the last time you really needed to be heard and it didn’t turn out as hoped for or expected.

Something wonderful happened and you wanted to share it. You tell someone you consider a friend your news and they say Great! and quickly move onto another unrelated subject. You’re standing there thinking Hey! Wait! This was really special. It deserves some kind of major acknowledgement. Maybe musical fanfare? Confetti? Anything? (tapping microphone) Is this thing on?

Or maybe it was at the other end of the spectrum—you experienced something traumatic and needed to share it. You pick up the phone and call the person you think will most likely understand. Maybe they barely hear what you’re saying, or they one-up you. They’ve experienced far, far worse. Or maybe they just start talking about what they ate for dinner. In any case, you’re diminished.

The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard. ―William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830

Most of us are not good listeners. We are not active listeners. We hear a few words here and there but miss the full meaning of what we are being told. We’re all guilty of this at one time or another. And yet, we all want to be heard.

When we’re not actively listening, we’re not just telling people that we don’t care about what they’re saying, we’re signaling that we don’t care about them. Oops. That’s kind of a biggie. Of course we care, we’re just a little distracted.

And speaking of distractions, we have to be conscious of our listener. We may need to be heard, but it takes two to tango in conversation. Maybe our friend is super busy at the moment we call, had a terrible day, or is simply not a good listener (in which case, call someone else―really). Conversing also involves listening and paying attention to the needs and abilities of our listener. It’s a continuous exchange of information. In other words, we need to listen in order to be heard.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. ―Ernest Hemingway

How, then, can we become better listeners? There are various methods we can find in books, online, etc., that are very helpful and instructive. (Google “active listening.”) There are plenty of experts out there who can help us to be better listeners. What I’m proposing is that we think about our listening, that we be conscious of it. We all drift off sometimes, and that’s okay. Just don’t forget to come back.

Can you hear me now? Good. (Sorry–I had to.)

*Source: Kathy Walker et. al, “Communication Basics,” LEADS Curriculum Notebook Unit II, Module 2-1 (Kansas State University, 2002), 2


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