SAN DIEGO — You may remember Mateo Beltran, the 3-year-old who wanted a cupcake even though his mother, Linda, refused to give him one. In a YouTube video that has now been viewed 14 million times, Mateo pleaded: “Listen Linda, listen.”
According to communications experts, not everyone is equally skilled at listening.
Several years ago, I was on a flight next to a man who worked as a private golf instructor. I asked him which students were most likely to heed his advice.
“The best listeners are actors and athletes,” he said. “They’re used to taking direction and being coached.”
The worst students?
“Retired high-ranking military officers, surgeons, CEOs – people not used to taking orders,” he said. “They’re nearly impossible to teach. They don’t listen.”
A few months ago, when my son started Little League, I told him that I expected two things – that he have fun, and that he listen to the coaches so he could learn the game. At the end of the season, the coaches commended him for being a good listener. This wasn’t true of all of his teammates.
Some people don’t listen because they don’t want to. Others, because they can’t. Many people – me included – would like to be better listeners, especially around family and friends. Often, we’re not sure how to get better.
Sometimes, you need to be embarrassed. About a decade ago, my mother-in-law was telling me a story and I wasn’t paying attention. So she quizzed me: “What did I just say?” I had no idea, but I stammered through a response. Now I make sure to pay attention, and my mother-in-law says I’m one of the best listeners in the family.
Actually, I consider myself a listener-in-training. If I’m getting better at listening, it might come from conducting so many interviews, although I have a habit of sometimes rushing to the next question before fully digesting the answer to the previous one. I also think it helps that I host radio shows; I hear voices in my headphones, from callers and producers, but I don’t see a face. Without the visual distraction, I’m forced to concentrate solely on the voice.
I made a point of listening carefully to Lisa Orick-Martinez. She is a communications professor at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque and an internationally certified listening professional. She is also the former executive director of the International Listening Association, a professional organization that promotes learning about listening and the impact it has on our lives. Members include entrepreneurs, teachers, professors, life coaches and sales executives – anyone who has to deal with the public.
My first question was whether there is a difference between simply hearing something and really listening to it.
“Hearing and listening are the same until the words get to the brain,” Orick-Martinez said. “That’s where we process it. And some people have better processing abilities than others.”
She explained the six basic elements of listening: hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting, evaluating and responding. To communicate effectively, you need all six.
In what occupations, I asked, is listening especially important? She rattled off a list: lawyers, doctors, police officers, teachers, consultants, etc.
Are there any occupations that have more than their share of bad listeners?
“Politics,” she said immediately. “It’s mutual. A lot of people don’t listen to politicians because we think they’re all lying. And politicians don’t listen to the public because they don’t think our concerns or opinions are worthy of their attention.”
Given that siblings raised in the same household can have different levels of listening ability, I asked whether some people are natural listeners or whether they develop that skill over time.
Orick-Martinez insisted that upbringing plays a role. She cited the examples of parents who don’t listen to their children, and those who answer questions for them so the kids don’t learn to listen.
Other dangers include short attention spans, our tendency to multitask, our failure to be mindful of the moment we’re living in, and – what the professor considers the most challenging obstacle to good listening – those omnipresent electronic gadgets that distract us.
Becoming a better listener doesn’t just happen organically.
“It’s work,” Orick-Martinez said. “It can be quite laborious. You have to be present, aware and mindful to be good at listening.”
I never gave this subject much thought, but there is a lot here. A whole new world has opened up. It was screaming out. All I had to do was listen.
Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach him at [email protected]