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Chapter 1

The Need for Better Listening

Listening is the neglected communication skill. While all of us have had instruction in reading, writing, and speaking, few have had any formal instruction in listening. This void in our education is especially interesting in light of research showing that most of us spend seven of every 10 minutes we are awake in some form of communication activity. Of these seven minutes (or 70 percent of the time we are awake), 10 percent is spent writing, 15 percent reading, 30 percent talking, and 45 percent listening.

Think of it! We spend nearly half of our communication time listening, but few of us make any real effort to be better listeners. For those who do, however, the effort pays great dividends: increased safety, higher productivity, faster learning, and better relationships.

Good listening is important to the Air Force—at times, absolutely crucial! Just how crucial is readily apparent from a report in a USAF air safety publication.* The report presents quotations from a taped conversation between a pilot and a control tower operator during routine landing preparations. The tower operator wants the aircraft to descend from 10 thousand feet to eight thousand feet. Here is that conversation.

*"Hearing But Not Listening," USAF Aerospace Safety, January 1971, 8.


1929:38 Approach Control: “Turn right, heading 180. Descend and maintain eight thousand.”

1929:42 Aircraft: “Right 180 out of fifteen thousand for two thousand.” (Aircraft’s readback was interrupted by another aircraft and not acknow- ledged by approach control.)

1931:08 Aircraft: “Steady 180 and passing ten thousand for two thousand.”

1931:11 Approach Control: “Roger.”

1931:22 Approach Control: “Your position 12 miles south- west of airport, maintain eight thousand feet.”

1931:30 Aircraft: “Roger, passing nine for two.” (This transmission was not acknowledged by approach control.)

1933:05 Approach Control: “Your position 19 miles south- west of airport. Turn right 200 for slight pattern exten- sion.”

The report goes on to say that radar and radio contact was lost “because both crewmen had uttered their final words, victims in a fatal accident of poor listening in the air and on the ground.”*

*"Hearing But Not Listening," USAF Aerospace Safety, January 1971, 8.

This avoidable accident is but one example in which listening played a crucial role. Effective listening is, in fact, crucial throughout the Air Force. Consider missile crew members who have the capability to unleash weapons of incredible destruction. The primary communication authorizing their launch is an encoded spoken transmission. Consider also command post, security police, and medical personnel who receive information primarily through the spoken word. A simple listening error in any of these areas could result in lost man-hours, equipment, or lives.

Now consider the fact that poor listening is costly in even the most routine staff communications and office operations. Directives to a staff or instructions to office personnel are often given only once. The greater the difference in rank between those giving the directives or instructions and those receiving them, the less inclined the receivers are to ask for clarification—lest they be considered dull, slow, or inattentive. It is important to listen carefully the first time.

Surveys show that Air Force managers put a premium on good listening. Strong listening skills consistently rank at or near the top of characteristics they desire in their subordinates.

Nor are Air Force managers unique in this regard. Far from it—business organizations with a profit motive have long recognized the value of listening effectively. Chief executive officers and chief operating officers of companies large and small say that poor listening is the number one problem in their organizations. Furthermore, they declare that listening is the communication skill most crucial to success. Their comments provoke no surprise, since many formal studies have resulted in the same conclusions: Listening is crucial in the workplace.

But listening is also important in other places—in the home, at church, in civic clubs, and at social gatherings. In these and other places, listening to gain information may be less important than listening to improve relationships. Counselors and other experts on interpersonal communication tell us that listening is the skill that can make or break a relationship. To a certain extent, this type of listening is important in the workplace as well; after all, we humans are relational individuals and it is sometimes as important to understand the person as what the person is saying. Even at work, then, there is a lot more to listening than just understanding the meaning of words.

There is no question but that listening is both crucial and neglected. It is therefore this book’s purpose to help you develop better listening skills. The chapters that follow are designed to help you become a better listener in all communication situations. The first step in becoming a better listener is to recognize certain false notions that many people hold about listening. Recognizing these fallacies will help you to avoid being trapped by them.