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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Hear ye! Hear ye! There's a lot to learn about how to listen

Good listening is a key element to job success, and bad habits can derail it, MSU Speech-Communication faculty member Nan Johnson-Curiskis tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

By Kay Harvey, Pioneer Press staff writer [published in the Pioneer Press, St. Paul, MN, 6/8/2005]


It's a command we've all heard often enough.

Sadly, few people really know how to listen, says Nan Johnson-Curiskis, a faculty member at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Most people, she says, have never been taught.

"The bulk of our listening training usually comes in first grade, when a teacher comes into the room and says, 'Sit down and listen,' which usually means, 'Shut up,' " says Johnson-Curiskis, named this year's outstanding listening educator by the International Listening Association.

"I think we all know listening is important," she says. Listening is a key element of success on the job, according to studies the association cites on its Web site ( And listening skills can make or break other interpersonal relationships. Yet, fewer than 2 percent of people, the Web site reports, get formal training in listening.

Shutting up is a start. But there's much more to being a good listener, says the award-winning teacher. There are all kinds of interference that make careful listening a challenge. Here are some typical habits that derail the process:

  • Thinking about what you want to say next. When you do that while someone else is speaking, you rarely get the whole gist of what's being said.
  • Feeling uncomfortable with silence. If someone you're talking with pauses, you pick up the slack in a heartbeat and interrupt the speaker's thought.
  • Shifting into information overload. You decide your brain is taking in so much information you'll quit listening to any of it.
  • Letting emotions rule. The speaker says something that makes you feel defensive or attacked. You quit listening and respond to the heat of the moment instead.
  • Tuning into distractions, rather than giving the person you're talking with all of your attention.
  • Daydreaming. You mentally check out because the conversation doesn't seem quite fascinating enough.

The latter two habits are fueled somewhat by biology, says Johnson-Curiskis. While people speak at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, the brain can process eight to 20 times that much information, research shows. That's why it takes discipline to stop the mind from wandering.

Listening became recognized as a field of academic study in 1940, shepherded to that status by Ralph Nichols, a debate coach in the University of Minnesota's speech rhetoric department, she says.

Johnson-Curiskis suggests two key steps in achieving careful listening:

  • Set the stage. Turn off the TV. Close the office door and put down your pen. "Clear your mind and your desk. Make sure you're in listening mode."
  • Use your ears and eyes. Pay attention to the person's words and body language, too. "How are they sitting? Is there a frown on their face? Tears in their eyes?"

She's not talking only about business conversations. "All these things are important when in any relationship," says the teacher who co-founded the International Listening Association 26 years ago.

She also suggests people observe characteristics of good listeners they know. "Ask yourself what that person does when I think they're listening to me. Maybe that person looks at me. Or asks questions. Write those things down.

"With the next good listener, do the same. Maybe you can pull together the commonalities."

Listening: the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.

Kay Harvey can be reached at or 651-228-5468.

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