A few years ago, I piloted a public speaking and storytelling event with a culturally diverse audience. I screened and coached my strongest speakers to share a personal anecdote about navigating adversity, including their “lessons learned.” Each speaker spoke for 5-10 minutes, was energetic and engaging and spoke with clear diction and at a comfortable, conversational speaking rate.
As I observed the audience from the sidelines, I was surprised by the furrowed brows and strained expressions. The speakers’ stories were humanistic and casual and, I felt certain, easy to understand. But that was not the case. The reaction of the majority of the audience who spoke English as a second language was largely one of uncertainty.
Following the speakers’ delivery, I had planned for the audience to move into small discussion groups to share their perspectives on what they had just heard. However, the unforeseen “disconnects” and “confusion” were listening comprehension gaps that altered this plan. Before individuals could share their perspectives, they needed to form their opinions, and in order to do that, they needed to fully comprehend. Repetition and explanation were required. This was true even for the most fluent English Second Language listeners. Once understanding was reached, a shared and rich discussion could occur.
It only takes one vowel or consonant, or a single unfamiliar word or idiom to confuse, and this is especially true if the language being heard is not native to the listener. For example, when file is heard as fire, the behavioral response to “Where is the file?” will be significantly different. Likewise, if you don’t know what a sack of potatoes is, or hear the phrase as one long word (sakapataytoes), there’s no clear “picture” to “He put the baby over his shoulder as if it were a sack of potatoes.”
Listening comprehension is a prerequisite for speaking and discussion. Yet, listening as a discipline, perhaps because it is so complex, invisible and intangible, is under-researched and under-valued. However, with over 140 potential barriers to communication, it is essential that listening has a more esteemed place in our educational system and business settings.