Accenture recently surveyed 3,600 professionals from 30 countries. Participants were evenly distributed between men and women and across generations and their positions ranged from entry-level through management. One of the survey’s major conclusions was that listening skills are lacking in the workplace. Some of the findings were:

  • 96% of respondents consider themselves good listeners
  • 98% admit to spending their days distracted and multitasking
  • 64% said listening has become more difficult as work turns more toward the digital
  • 36% said that distractions kept them from doing their best work—including telephone calls, emails, and unexpected visitors to their office.
  • 80% say they multitask during conference calls (email- 66% andIMing-35%).
    • Those who did listen actively on calls stated they either needed something from the call or were required to lead, participate in or follow-up on the discussion. (Accenture survey, February 26, 2015; italics mine).

Everyone agrees that listening is an important and underutilized skill. As early the first century A.D. James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath.” (James 1:19). There is no doubt that all of us need to improve this critical capability of keeping our mouths shut and our ears open.

But as Paul Harvey would say, “ Here’s the rest of the story.” Often communication problems are not due to poor listening skills but because of poor speaking. How many times have you experienced or observed this problem? A person begins to speak and he or she presents multiple important facts or assumptions that require clarification or discussion. You feel like a fire hose is being placed in your mouth as thoughts go flooding by. Presenting information as fact and moving quickly through multiple key points means that in many instances data or assumptions on which a decision, judgment or opinion is based are left un-discussed.

The listening advocate will say that it is the responsibility of the listener is to take copious notes so that those points can be revisited after the person stops talking. My observation, after sitting through many meetings (way too much of my productive life, by the way), is that as soon as a person takes a breath another person will jump in and off we will go in a slightly different direction.

The truth is speakers have a major responsibility in the communication process. We acknowledge this during presentations and lectures but it is also true in meetings, conversations and collaborations. Failure to properly present information can be just as destructive as poor listening skills. (54% of respondents in the Accenture study said thinking before speaking is an important aspect of communication). It can impact the quality of the discussion and the ultimate action. Poor or illogical presentation of ideas can also be just as or more detrimental to a person’s career as poor listening skills.

So what guidelines should speakers follow? Consider the principles in the acronym “SPEAK”.

  • Succinct
    • The average person has an attention span of five (5) minutes, meaning a person tunes out 84% of a 30-minute discussion. (Fortune Magazine, July 10, 2013).
      • Note: It may be worse than what Fortune Magazine reports. According to one study, the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. (National Center for Biotechnology Information). This is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish.
    • According to HBR, every member of a team should speak and listen in short bursts. (“The New Science of Building Great Teams”, HBR April 2012)
    • Research done at University of North Carolina indicates that “talkier” teams are often less effective than those that just get on with the job.
  • Precise
    • Lead with your main point. (Don’t make people guess where you are going).
    • Present one idea or concept at a time.
    • 93% of employers agree, “Job candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” (Hart Research Associates, 2013). Underlying these three skills is a logical process that is highly valued in both thinking and sharing of information.
  • Explain
    • Support your main point with facts and rationale.
    • Add new data and value
    • Avoid two major pitfalls
      • Communication time is often wasted by people who are in “violent agreement”. Not much is gained when we all agree, even when we do so passionately.
      • Fall victim to the communication illness of “everything has been said but not everyone has said it”. Reiterating what others have said with a slightly different view adds little to the discussion.
    • Present thoughts in an orderly or logical manner.
  • Ask for questions or comments
    • Stop and ask for discussion after a key point is presented.
      • 49% of respondents in the Accenture study indicated asking questions was critical to the communication process.
    • Understanding and engagement are more important than sharing everything one knows.
  • Conclude (OK, the C in place of the K is a stretch!)
    • When you are finished, stop talking
    • Don’t keep repeating or explaining your point

If  “ The ideal team member communicates to connect teammates, spread ideas, approaches others often, talks and listens equally”. (“The New Science of Building Great Teams”, HBR April 2012), then maybe we all should work as hard on our effectiveness in presenting our thoughts as well as how well we listen to other’s.

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