No “Fast Forward” Button for Engaged Listening

Wanting to rush ahead while listening to someone else speaking  is a frequent problem in communication.

Just this week, I caught myself finishing a colleague’s sentence for her instead of listening to her fully. No good! I apologized immediately and let her finish her thought.



There are several possible reasons for this kind of impatience, such as stress, having a different agenda, a misguided sense of “efficiency,” or simply not caring at all.

But there is also a natural reason behind this impatience.

Humans can think three times faster than we can speak. This is both an opportunity and a problem!

Most of us speak at about 150 words per minute, whereas we can process information at a rate of about 450 words per minute.  (Experienced auctioneers and speed debaters regularly speak in the 300 – 400 wpm range!)

Because we can process words at roughly triple the speed of the speaker, we often have additional mental capacity available while someone else is doing the talking.

This wide difference between average speaking and mental processing rates is an opportunity as well as a danger.

There’s an opportunity to use this extra capacity to be present, engaged, and ask more questions – in other words, to be an engaged listener.

But there’s also a danger that this additional capacity is used for mental tangents, planning we what we want to talk about next, refuting the speaker, or dealing with our own emotional response to what is being said.

If it were simply words on a page, then we could skim, scan, and fast forward at our preferred optimal rate. The book or webpage isn’t offended if we speed read.

But as much as some of us might wish it so, there’s no “fast forward” button on another human being!

Some of us still try to push the fast forward button, though, by interrupting, finishing another person’s sentences, and jumping ahead in the conversation. Ironically, pushing the fast forward button in these ways isn’t more efficient, it’s less efficient.

Fast forward listening impedes communication, creates confusion, and can even damage the relationship.

Instead of trying to fast forward:

  1. Remember the “3X rule.” If you find your mind wandering, remind yourself that this is your brain’s way of alerting you that you have extra mental capacity available.
  2. Choose to invest this extra mental capacity in engaged listening.  Check in. Allow yourself to feel what the speaker is saying now. Try to anticipate where the speaker is going next. Stay active by asking mental and verbal clarifying questions.

Mental: “What point is she trying to make?” “How does this fit into the context of what I know about this subject?”

Verbal: “Tell me more.” “Why do you think it happened that way?”

  1. Recognize that the need to be heard is an intrinsic human need that transcends the need to merely convey facts and information. A book doesn’t care if it’s read, or at what speed you read. But the person you’re speaking with probably cares if you listen fully!

How do you avoid fast forwarding in your communication?


Fast forward photo by Leo Reynolds

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