I always hope to have a real-world example to go along with the subject I write about in this column. As I type this, I am alternating between the need to laugh and the temptation to cry (or, at least, furl my brow and shake my head).
The reason? A just-fresh experience that illustrates a sad-but-true reality: We often miss the meaning of what someone has said by a very wide margin.
I had ordered a skirt from a reputable clothing store. When it came, it was too big. I returned it and asked for a smaller size. It arrived, but it was still way too big. So, I called the customer service number and explained my problem.
"Maybe it was mislabeled," I said. "But whatever the reason, it doesn't rest at the waist -- it's nearly down to my hips. Is the skirt designed that way?"
"Well," said the very friendly rep, "it shouldn't rest that high up. Our other styles don't."
"You mean, that low?" I said. "It's at least three inches below the waist."
"Right," said the rep. "It shouldn't be that high up. Maybe there's something wrong."
I then referred to the picture of the model wearing the skirt. It looked as if her version fit properly. I imagined mine wrapping around my knees. I tried again.
I said, "The skirt I have here is near the hips. It (the picture) looks like it should be at the waist."
"Right," he said, again. "It should be lower than the one you have."
"The waist is higher than the hips," I said, trying to be patient. "Shouldn't the skirt be at the waist?"
"Well, yes. It should ... oh!" There was a pause. "You're right."
Listening is a crucial skill at work, worship and in our everyday relationships. In 1957, researchers at the University of Minnesota studied the listening ability of students and working professionals. They concluded that the average person only remembers half of what he or she hears after listening to someone talk.
With all the technological help we have at our disposal today, have we improved since the 1950s? Alas, no.
According to statistics compiled by the International Listening Association, a variety of more recent studies indicate that, although we spend between 24 percent to 55 percent of our time each day in listening, most of us recall only 17 percent to 25 percent of what we have heard.
Despite the statistics, however, the situation is not hopeless. With effort, we can become better listeners. One way is to engage other senses. Awareness of visual cues, vocal tone, time and place help pin down the content of what we hear.
Focus is key. According to the International Listening Association data, more than 50 percent of meaning is carried nonverbally. Eye contact helps comprehension (and is more respectful than keeping our gaze on our cellphones!).
Health can affect how well we listen. Hearing loss or other challenges can make it difficult to take in aural information. An emotional or psychological unwillingness to engage in conversation can keep us from truly hearing what someone is saying to us. Addressing these issues can make us better listeners.
Sometimes we are too tired, frazzled or nervous to understand fully. But if we have more patience and nurture comprehension in "smaller" conversations, we can build listening skills for those important talks with loved ones or co-workers, or even times when we crave understanding in prayer or worship.
Yes, the more we strive to listen, the less our words will, er, go to waist ... (Sorry, couldn't resist!)
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Pratt's website is www.maureenpratt.com.