POOR RECEPTION - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)


How good are you at listening? Much has been written on the subject, but a few simple techniques will help you learn this skill. It will enrich your life as well as those around you. According to listening experts like Dr. Lyman K. Steil of the University of Minnesota, Americans spend 9 percent of the time they devote to communication each day in writing, 16 percent in reading, 30 percent in speaking, and 45 percent in listening.

However, most people are inefficient listeners. Tests indicate that right after listening to a ten-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, comprehended, accurately evaluated, and retained about half of what was said. Within forty-eight hours, that drops another 50 percent to a 25 percent effectiveness level. By the end of a week, that level goes down to about 10 percent or less.


Up to 80 percent of a spoken message gets lost or garbled by the time it travels from the executive level to the sales level of a company. To quote Dr. Steil’s findings as reported by the Sperry Corporation, “With more than 100 million workers in America, a simple 10-dollar listening mistake by each of them would cost a billion dollars. Letters have to be retyped, appointments rescheduled, shipments reshipped.”

At one of New England Telephone’s twelve divisions, it was found that around 20 percent of its operator-assisted calls were delayed by listening problems. The average delay was just fifteen seconds. But that cost the division $874,800 a year. New England Telephone estimated that it recovered about $500,000 of that loss after it developed a program to teach effective listening.

According to a news story headlined IF ONLY CON ED LISTENED, the electrical blackout of New York City in July of 1977 could have been prevented if Consolidated Edison had only heeded a warning from the State Power Pool. In a taped conversation, a Power Pool spokesperson told a Con Ed worker, “You’d better get rid of some [electrical] load.” The worker reportedly replied, “You’re right, you’re right!” But somebody didn’t listen. Some thirty-two minutes later, New York City went pitch-black.

We’re not trained to listen. As children, basically we hear threats. When Mother says, “Okay. I’ve said it for the third time. Now this time you’re going to get a spanking,” or “This time you’re going to bed,” we say, “Oh, sure.” From our earliest days, people have had to figuratively hit us over the head with a sledgehammer to get our attention, and parents oftentimes play right into our hands. They start yelling when they want something, instead of quietly saying, “I’m going to ask you to do this, and I’m only going to ask you once. And this is what I would like done. Listen very carefully. Now what did I say to you?” Either the child can repeat it or he can’t, but he immediately knows he has to listen carefully. That doesn’t mean being cruel. You don’t have to do it in a militaristic manner. But if you teach your children to listen, they’ll be more successful in life.


Let’s assume that you’ve been told or have decided that you’re a poor listener, and you want to get better at it. What are some of the things you could do?

Try going to a week of meetings and saying absolutely nothing unless you’re directly asked to speak or you’re required to talk. Do nothing else but concentrate and focus on what other people say. Listen to what they say and what you think they really mean. Take notes to determine whether what they said and what they meant struck you as being different, since oftentimes people say one thing but mean something else.

For a week, discipline yourself to go with a notepad to any meeting or interactive situation and listen. Toward the end of the week, occasionally ask questions to elicit more information. Then try to figure out what you’ve learned during that period of time.

Watch to see if the face, eyes, voice, and body reinforce the speaker’s words or detract from them. Look for telltale, nonverbal signs that suggest a conflict between what’s said and what’s meant. Although there’s no hard-and-fast cause-effect relationship between body language and intent, often people who are suspicious glance sideways. Those who are nervous may fidget or clear their throat. If someone peers over his glasses he may be evaluating you. Conversely, if someone leans forward, smiles at you, and unbuttons his jacket, he is probably receptive and willing to cooperate with you.

You have to just sit quietly for a while, listen, and see what other people are saying. According to the ancient text Sirach, “If you love to listen, you will gain knowledge and if you incline your ear, you will become wise.”


Are others listening to you? How can you be sure that when you’ve given someone instructions, they’ve actually heard you, and your instructions will be followed?

That’s a common problem, especially in business, because most people are not very good at giving instructions or orders—they don’t set time lines, they’re not specific. Let’s say there’s a problem with a client. The boss may tell a subordinate, “Take care of that and get back to me.” Now the boss thinks she’s said, “Call the client. Gather all of the pertinent information. Identify the problem. Solve it if you can. If you can’t, come back to me and tell me what the problem is and I’ll solve it. And do it today.”

What the employee heard was “There may be a problem with that client. I guess I should give them a call in the next few days, and then get back to the boss. Well … maybe I’ll just wait till she brings it up again.”

Imagine there is a Dictaphone on the desk when that conversation takes place. The boss pushes the record button before the meeting starts. In doing so, she says to the subordinate, “I want to tape this because I’m trying to improve my communication skills. I’m trying to be very specific about what our problem is with the client. What do you think it is?”

The boss then listens to the subordinate describe the problem. Let’s say it’s an inaccurate description, but it’s the subordinate’s best description. The boss then tries to focus on what the client’s problem is. She poses certain questions like “Have you talked to the client? When did you talk to the client? What specifically did the client say? Do you recall his words? How urgent do you think this situation is? What would you recommend as a way of solving it? Do you feel that I need to get into it at this point, or can you solve it?” Then, “I think it’s important. What I would like you to do is call the client today and get the parameters of the problem. Tell the client, The last time that I talked with you I got the feeling there was a problem. I’d like you to outline what the problem is, because we’d sure like to solve it for you.’ Let the client talk. Ask questions so he’ll be specific. And say, ‘All right. We can solve those things one-two-three. We’ll get back to you.’ ”

To put a time line on the subordinate’s mission (to monitor how well he listened), the boss could then tell the subordinate, “This is now Thursday. By Monday I’d like to have a report from you on how this was handled.”


The British author Rudyard Kipling had this to say about asking the right questions to get the right answers: “I keep six honest serving men./(They taught me all I knew);/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who.” Make sure you’ve carefully considered all six of Kipling’s “honest” factors when you listen. It will serve you well.

Here are some tips to help you become a better listener:

1. Relax and clear your mind if someone is speaking, so that you’re receptive to what they’re saying.

2. Never assume that you’ve heard correctly because the first few words have taken you in a certain direction. Most listening mistakes are made by people who only hear the first few words of a sentence, finish the sentence in their own minds, and miss the second half.

3. Learn to speed up your point of contact as a listener. The second you hear a sound coming from another person, concentrate quickly on the first few words. That will get you started correctly.

4. Don’t tune out a speaker just because you don’t like his or her looks, voice, or general demeanor. Stay open to new information.

5. Don’t overreact emotionally to the speaker’s words or ideas—especially those that may run contrary to your usual thinking. Hear the other person out.

6. Before forming a conclusion, let the speaker complete his or her thought. Then evaluate by distinguishing in your mind specific evidence presented (good) versus generalities (bad).

7. Part of listening is writing things down that are important. You should always have a piece of paper, a pencil, a notebook, or a card in your pocket. Throughout the day, many important things are discussed. But by the close of business, you don’t remember the details. How many of you have found a phone number on a scrap of paper in your handwriting with no name attached? So take notes to listen, to remember later, and to document, if necessary.

8. People will often say one thing and mean something else. As you grow in your listening sophistication, it is important to listen for intent as well as content. This gets back to the absorption process we talked about before. Watch as you listen. Be sure that the speaker’s eyes, body, and face are sending signals that are consistent with the speaker’s voice and words. If something sounds out of sync, get it cleared up. Many people are afraid of looking foolish if they ask for clarification because it will seem as if they weren’t paying attention. Better to have the speaker repeat a message on the spot than to set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding.

9. Human communication goes through three phases: reception (listening), information processing (analyzing), and transmission (speaking). When you overlap any of those, you may short-circuit the reception (listening) process. Try to listen without overanalyzing. Try to listen without interrupting the speaker.

10. Another major failing of people in listening is simple distraction. To listen correctly you must be able to reprioritize immediately. The second you hear sound coming toward you, focus and say to yourself, “This is important.” Keep your eye on the speaker. Don’t fiddle with pens, pencils, papers, or other distractions.

If you’re able to follow these ten steps, you will eventually be an excellent listener.


The flip side of listening too little is talking too much. The world is full of people who tell you how to build a clock when all you asked for was the time of day. One executive I know was very much this way. He was bright and well educated. When he came to me, he was being groomed by the president of the company to be his successor, because the president liked him very much.

The man’s problem was that he couldn’t close a sale. After working with him, I discovered that it was virtually impossible for him to cut to the heart of anything. He rarely got to the bottom line. He would always talk around the point and tell you a lot more than you needed to know. Eventually, he would just wear you out.

He blew sales because he didn’t absorb. He didn’t listen. He didn’t observe. He missed the signals that the prospect was ready to buy. He would just keep talking. I had to teach him to do more listening than talking, but first I had to convince him that he had a problem. The only way I could do this was to videotape him in a conversation answering questions that I asked him.

In one case I asked him a question and his answer went on for over five minutes. He not only answered the question I asked him but answered three questions I didn’t ask him, two of which were not to his advantage. Even after I showed him the videotape, he rationalized and made excuses for all the talk. So I had a transcript made of the actual conversation. I made him sit and read the transcript out loud.

Once he did that, he became so embarrassed that he was convinced he had a problem. I then asked him to rewrite the answer to the question in the briefest form possible. It turned out that he came up with an excellent answer in three sentences which took exactly nineteen seconds.


A general rule of thumb: Most of us talk more than we need to. Most of us tell people more than they need to know. Most of us ramble too much, and most of us take too long to say things. If you accept this, you can begin to clean up your conversation and become someone people want to listen to, instead of someone they feel they have to listen to. The moral: If most of the time you talk more than you listen, you’re probably failing in your communication, and you’re probably boring people, too.