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Listening is the Key to Problem Solving

Listening is the Key to Problem Solving.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

There is a common denominator in the human experience. We all want to be heard. We all want to know that what we’re saying and feeling matters.

Oprah Winfrey, March, 2017.

Of course, to hear is not to listen.

How long was,

-Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?*

-Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech?*

-President Obama’s first inauguration speech?*

Expert Statistics:

Communicators experts assert that most people,

-Are listening at an effectiveness level of 25%;

-At home or in familiar surroundings, this listening effectiveness may fall to 10%;

-Listen attentively to most topics for an average of 12 minutes;

-Listen attentively for 20 minutes if they are really interesting in the topic;

-Talk at a rate of 125 words per minute;

-Listen at a rate of 425 words per minute.

Most people when pressed will admit that they are not listening effectively.

If one doubts these statistics, try this,

-Ask at a restaurant for water, no ice. Success chances? 15%.

-Go into a carryout alone and order two gyro lunches. Chances of getting just one? 65%.

-Example: A gets into an Uber and directs the Uber Driver to travel one mile on 11th Street, south. At each block, the Uber Driver asks, Should I turn here? The response is, No, since Uber has driven only one block not a mile.

Professor Larry Ray note: If you have any doubt about the 25% statistic, examine the exercise at the end of this blog. In my classes, before I give the lecturette on listening, I conduct this exercise. I read the story about Darlene Thomas, the Anthropologist and her work. I then surprise the class with the ten question quiz. The result? Most students answer one or two correctly. Every once in awhile, someone will get 6-8. The initial reaction to these abysmal results is to be embarrassed or blame the process or even the professor. Initially, some might say that I read it too fast. Upon reflection, they all mostly admit that they had not been listening. And this non-listening is in a classroom setting! One would expect classroom listening to be high.

I could have increased their scores by “behavior labeling;” that is, telling them what I was going to do before I did it. I could have said, I am going to read you a story and then quiz you on this reading. The lesson? If you want people to listen better, practice behavior labeling: telling them what you are going to do before you do it.

Attention Span Reduced to 8 Seconds:

One reason for this ineffective listening may be that people’s attention span may now be eight seconds.

Listening is a vital human communication skill.

-“Assume that persons have something important to say.

-Shut up and listen.

-Ask questions but not to dominate the conversation.

-People are generally not interested in your opinions but in theirs.

-Use silence.

-Put away your pen and they might start saying the most important items.

-Skilled listeners use other people’s words to persuade.”

Financial Times, Lessons in Listening, Simon Kruper.

Maybe Too Connected:

“Staying connected” is the unspoken mantra of the smartphone generation. We now have the ability to instantaneously link up with nearly any information source, and tap into a live feed of what’s happening in our social circle.

However, critics have long warned that this non-stop barrage of news and trivia is inevitably distracting, making it more difficult to maintain the focused attention necessary for truly meaningful communication.”

Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech University

“Listening Beyond Our Blind Spots.”

Mark Goulston and John Ullmen describe four types of listening and help to explain why often the listening is so ineffective.

-Avoidance Listening: This type of listening is when the listener is doing many other things such as checking emails while the person is talking.

-Defensive Listening: This type of listening puts the listener almost as an adversary, busy thinking of counterpoints to whatever the speaker is saying. They quote Mark Twain: Most conversations are monologues in the presence of witnesses.

-Problem Solving Listening: Listeners are listening to solve the issue-to move forward, but often the speaker is not looking for answers. They want to be heard. Sometimes this type of listening is helpful.

-Connective Listening: This is the highest level of listening. There is genuine rapport. The listener is listening to discover where the speaker is-what is going on inside of them. One way to achieve connective listening is “active listening.”

Active Listening: Active listening is a well known concept and yet most folks still practice it. It works and helps to create a trusting relationship. There might be five steps of active listening:

1.Receive the message.

2.Understand it.

3.Evaluate it.

4.Remembering it.

5.Responding to it.


-Make eye contact.

-Keep an open mind.

-Don’t be a sentence grabber (finishing sentences)

-Try to picture.

-Remember key words and phrases.

-Put yourself in their shoes.

-Mimicry, nonverbal/verbal.

It is interesting to note that listen and silence spelled with the same letters. An embedded lesson?

The Beacon, April, 2019, Teacher Alexis Bentz.

Reflecting Listening:

“There are three basic levels of reflective listening that may deepen or increase the

intimacy and thereby change the affective tone of an interaction. In general, the

depth should match the situation. Examples of the three levels include:

1. Repeating or rephrasing – listener repeats or substitutes synonyms or

phrases; stays close to what the speaker has said

2. Paraphrasing – listener makes a major restatement in which the speaker’s

meaning is inferred

3. Reflection of feeling – listener emphasizes emotional aspects of

communication through feeling statements – deepest form of listening

(Adapted from Motivational Interviewing materials by David B. Rosengren, Ph.D. and from Motivational Interviewing by Miller & Rollnick, 1991)

We Often Hear What We Are Accustomed to Hearing.

Here’s is an example that portrays this principle:

An entomologist (E) and an accountant (A) were walking on the downtown sidewalk.

E: Listen to the cicadas.

A: We are in the city. How do you hear cicadas?

E did not respond but reached in his pocket, found a coin and dropped it to the sidewalk. A along with other passersby heard and recognized this sound.

E: We hear what we are accustomed to hearing.

We Often Only Hear What We Want to Hear.

Singer Paul Simon, The Boxer: Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

Scientifically, this may be called, Pareidolia. Here’s an example: If someone tells you that you can totally hear “Paul is dead” when you play the Beatles ‘Revolution 9’ in reverse, you may in fact “hear” it because that’s what you expect to hear. In other words, if you’re looking for patterns, you may very well find them—even if they’re only figments of your imagination!”

More broadly, most have poor listening skills and are really thinking of the next thing they are going to say. Often they are not ready to hear bad or negative information. This happens in performance reviews or in the workplace when someone is giving feedback.

The cognitive limitation of “confirmation bias” also plays a role here. People will selectively listen for information that validates their beliefs and opinions. This type of listening impedes creative problem solving.

Communication Styles and Listening:

There are a variety of instruments that classify communication styles:





These are listed in four quadrants defined by two continua: assertiveness and outward warmth. The vertical continuum is outward warmth (high to low). Amiable and expressive are high in outward warmth; analytic and driver are low in outward warmth.

The horizontal continuum is “assertiveness (low to high).” Amiable and analytic are low assertiveness; expressive and driver are high in assertiveness.

It seems predictable that if one with an amiable style is trying to communicate including listening with a driver, it is challenging. If an expressive communication style is trying to communicate (listen) with an analytic, also challenging.

What does one do? First, communication styles are behaviors and behaviors can be tweaked, flexed or even changed. If an analytic style is communicating with an expressive, in the ideal, both would flex their style to come more to the middle; this, improving listening.

Author Mark Goulston also discusses this in his 10/9/2013 Blog. If one is communicating with a “venter/screamer,” let them get it out of their system. Then reflect their most important points. By reframing it to the most important points, they will usually listen and correct.

If one is communicating with an “explainer/belaborer,” check one’s impatience and annoyance. After one has listened, play back to them the most important points and the action plan steps.

Listening Style Preferences.

Another issue is listening style preferences. These are often cataloged in this way:

-People oriented Listeners are concerned about relationships, generally nonjudgmental and sensitive to moods.

-Action-oriented Listeners are focused on the task at hand and anxious to get to the point.

-Content-oriented Listeners are evaluators and anxious to hear details.

-Time-oriented Listeners are efficient and useful in getting projects accomplished.

So, one needs to recognize that these are mostly learned behaviors. Thus, one can value one’s preferences and respect others preferences so to increase the listening.

(American Management Association, Building Better Work Relationships)


Dr. Ralph Nichols, “father of the study of listening” and member of International Listening Association (Bell Plaine, MN)

1. The most basic of all human needs is to understand and to be understood.

2. It is almost impossible to hate a person whom we fully understand.

3. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

4. We are at the mercy of those who understand us better than we understand them.

5. When people make a decision, it is for their reasons, not ours.

6. The wise listener is attentive, and non-evaluative; he asks only unslanted questions, and praises those statements by an adversary which he can honestly praise.

7. We must face with courage the fact that when we succeed in “hearing a person out,” our own position may become quite modified.

8. Loyalty is not the highest of all virtues, normally being surpassed by honesty, compassion, and justice.

9. Common human needs do provide our best basis for the resolution of conflict.

10. When truth and falsehood are presented with equal skill, truth is always more persuasive

*1Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Speech-maybe his best: 700 words-often called Sermon on the Mount. Engraved in the Lincoln Memorial and summed up the meaning of the Civil War. Speech is best known for its closing: “malice toward none, with charity for all. Speech contained many Biblical reference. (At the time, 1/8 of the population was slaves. Also John Wilkes Booth was spotted in the inaugural celebration.) Wikipedia.

I have a Dream Speech aka Normalcy No More MLK 18 minutes

18 minutes: Obama’s Inauguration Speech (2,402 words)

Lincoln’s second inauguration speech = 720 words, shorter than Obama’s


Larry Ray

Larry Ray aspired to be a history professor but under the influence of Muskingum University Dr. Robert Munkres (Political Science/Pre-Law Professor), he attended law school. Not that enamored by the large lecture classes, Ray discovered an experimental program: The Night Prosecutors Mediation Program, funded by the US Department of Justice.… MORE >

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