You could certainly accuse this blog of idealism about listening. In contrast to e-mail, for example, just go and talk to the person. Through listening to their words and observing their body language, you can pick up so much more subtle and complete information: How do they feel about the subject? What are their expectations and how can you adjust your own work in light of those expectations? How important is this to them, anyway?

The downside of all that additional information you get from listening is . . . all that additional information you get from listening. People speak at about 140-180 words per minute, but on average, a listener can comprehend about 400 words per minute. Different sources offer slightly different numbers, but a common thread runs across all version of this statistic: the listener thinks faster than the speaker thinks.

That “thought-speech differential” or “listening gap” means the brain has extra capacity and WILL process information using that extra capacity. For example, the listener can process lots of non-verbal cues. Great listeners will observe such cues and use them to guide the conversation to fit their communication goals.

But the difference in how fast people talk and how fast they listen also creates the opportunity for the brain’s cognitive biases to operate and shape how the listener’s perception. I have previously written about some of the cognitive biases that may arise in particular when listening is involved. See Listen Like a Lawyer blog posts here and here and here covering cognitive biases such as the well-known confirmation bias.

To use Daniel Kahneman’s framework, the difference between the speed of thought and speed of speech is a space where “System 1” can roam. System 1 is the automatic, always-on system and also the one with all the cognitive biases (in lay terms, mental shortcuts). The more thoughtful “System 2” is where you find the careful “thinking slow” of his great book’s title, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Whatever the task, the most effective communicators are able to use the speech/thought differential for custom listening, not listening fueled by standard cognitive biases based on the Kahneman formula “WYSIATI”—What You See Is All There Is. Effective listeners are able to suss out what is not happening, and what they need to ask.  Effective lawyers in particular will use their excess cognitive capacity to both attend to non-verbal cues and how the speaker presents, while also ignoring the cues and presentation to focus on the information and what else they need to know. As with all other lawyering skills, the most effective lawyer-listeners perform the task in a way that is both standardized to what they need to know and do as well as customized to the particular situation including strictly relevant facts and all the other seemingly irrelevant but highly important background and emotional factors affecting the communication experience.


Note: The original version of this post cited to sources no longer available, an article by Rita Hedley on Medium, and Ken Grady’s project for Seyfarth Shaw at Seytlines. Ken now teaches at Michigan State and writes on Medium here.

 

 

Posted by Jennifer Romig

Jennifer teaches writing, research, and advocacy at Emory Law School. She tweets at @ListenLikeaLwyr and @JenniferMRomig.

3 Comments

  1. […] may happen partly because people think faster than others can talk. This creates the well-known “thought-speech differential”. The excess brain capacity to think, compared with the relatively slow rate of speech, creates […]

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  2. […] What about our thoughts? They’re more like a few 1000 words per minute (https://listenlikealawyer.com/2015/09/24/speed-of-speech-speed-of-thought/). Even if the numbers are wrong, the point remains: we write slower than we speak and much slower […]

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  3. […] brain may think upwards of 3000 words per minute, and many of those are actually directed to you. (source 1) (source […]

    Reply

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