It’s not what we say, but it’s how we say it. We all know that expression. In music, it’s not what we play, but it’s how we play it. In both communication and in music, the slightest difference in tone, tempo, or timing can have serious consequences for the meaning of our expression. For example, studies show that 80% of serious medical errors are due to miscommunication, according to Oregon Health & Science University. The importance of communication becomes even greater when we look at the element of communication in leadership, as our leaders are the ones who are driving our organizations. 

So as leaders, what creates great performance in communication? When we think of leaders renowned for their communication skills, we often think of those who are great orators or those whose abilities with the written word have changed the world. This tendency to think first of speaking and writing as the foundation of great communication skills is normal; the US system of classroom instruction traditionally focuses on reading and speaking (lecturing) as the primary mediums by which learning happens.  

But what happened to the lost art of listening? Perhaps it is not an overstatement to say that people generally do not know how to listen. Research at Florida State University and Michigan State University finds that the average listener forgets 75% of a talk they heard only 2 months ago and that in subjects we have barely learned, we forget up to 66% of a talk within eight hours! Ask yourself: How much of your work depends on you listening to someone, or someone listening to you? Looking back over the last few years, how many troubles have arisen in your organization from someone not hearing something, or hearing it in a wrong way? 

What goes wrong in our listening? What is the monkey wrench in this critical system of business communication? The problem may stem largely from the fact that we think much faster than we talk. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, the average American speaks at a speed of 125 words per minute. This is a very slow rate of information transfer given the processing capacity of the human brain’s 13 billion cells, which operate in an incredibly complicated and efficient manner. The difference between speaking and thinking rates means that while we listen, we continue to think at high speed. The brain generates hundreds of thoughts other than those spoken to us, tempting us into mental sidetracks.

While we are “listening” how often do we wander off into thinking about the next response we are going to offer? How frequently do we get mentally sidetracked into jumping to conclusions about where the speaker is going? How often do we just tune out and think about what’s next on our calendar, that phone call we must make, and the growing pile of unanswered messages in our inbox?   

The instruction most of us receive in this area during our classroom years amounts largely to warnings to “Listen up!” “Pay attention!” “Open your ears!” Our typical educational backgrounds do not approach listening as an acquired ability accomplished by learning specific composite skills. So, what then can we do to improve listening abilities in our organizations, and what composite skills can we focus on? Stay tuned for next month’s piece, in which we’ll lay out the case for a specific composite communication skill backed by research published in Forbes, and currently being used by Intel, Google, and General Mills!

To learn more about using music for experiential learning in the areas of communication and leadership, email us at or call us at 1-800-273-1465.