Communication issues may be simpler than you think

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

It was a simple exercise.

Participants completed a questionnaire during a business seminar my father once conducted on effective communications.

Which of the following do you feel represents your biggest problem in communications? Select only one.

(1) Making yourself understood

(2) Writing an effective letter

(3) Telling a funny story well

(4) Presenting your ideas in a clear, forceful manner

(5) Making a good speech before people

(6) Listening

(7) Making snappy comebacks or witty remarks

When finished, the attendees were asked who selected number 6 — listening. Seldom did anyone choose it. However, listening is the number one problem in communication, they were told. Usually we think the ability to express ourselves to another person is the greatest need in communications. But effective listening towers above all the rest, my father contended.

In my IBM sales training years ago, I, too, learned the value of listening in our classes on customer-oriented selling. To discover a customer’s business needs, we were trained to listen to the customer first, and then rephrase what we heard to check for understanding, making sure we heard what the customer said.

“If I understand you correctly, your concern is…” “So, what I hear you saying is…” “So, in other words, you feel…”

This rephrasing element was difficult, demanding attentiveness not only to what was said, but what was left unsaid as we secured a commitment on a common understanding. The results were remarkable. Customers were much more receptive to presentations rooted in their restated business needs.

Yet, the power of listening extends beyond the business setting. Think of a person you know who is a good listener. Chances are you like — really like — this person. You feel good when you are with them. Something about the person draws you in — a magnetism. He or she makes you feel good about yourself.

In fact, a person’s ability and willingness to listen to you can improve what you feel and think about yourself. When people listen to you, they are saying, “You are important.” When silently attentive, they are loudly communicating that you are valuable and what you have to say is worth their time.

But let’s be honest here. Listening can be exhausting. Some “paint with small paintbrushes,” as my father lovingly described my mother’s panache for details. Some state opinion as fact, pontificating exaggerations that can irritate the listener. Still others speak so quickly and densely that you have to skim with your ears!

Yet on the homefront, listening is loving. We listen to the people we love. The more we love, the more we listen. And the more we listen, the more there is to love about the person.

You listen to people who matter to you.

In truth, we may have a greater effect on people by the way we listen than by the way we talk.

Or as the caption of a long-eared puppy at my veterinarian’s office reads, “You can make more friends with your ears than your mouth.”