Jamie Merrill headshot
Jamie Merrill

Most of us think we are good listeners. Then one day, the truth hits you in the face. You’re in a conversation with someone — perhaps a spouse or significant other — and it happens. Your focus changes. Your mind wanders to an occurrence in a community, or you start laying out the next steps for a project at work. Perhaps you are just trying to figure out what’s for dinner. When your focus comes back to the conversation, you realize you just missed several minutes of information without meaning to. You may have been hearing the other person speak, but you were not listening.

Plenty of studies have confirmed that we’re worse at listening than we realize. But why? We think faster than most people speak, a fact scientists believe is to blame for our collective bad listening skills.

Did you know that our brains process words at speeds of around 400 words per minute? That’s much faster than most people talk, which makes the act of listening an exercise in both patience and time management. This delay gives our brain a lot of extra time for thinking during the act of listening, making it difficult for some to pay attention.

Think you’re too smart? Well, that works against you, too.

Research also states that smart people are not good listeners because their brains process words even faster, creating even more “free time” for the mind to wander. So, if you’ve been accused of not listening, take comfort in the knowledge that the smartest people are just as easily distracted!

No matter how smart you are, distracted listening comes at a cost, both in our personal and professional lives. Companies that truly listen and react to employee feedback are 11 times more likely to have higher retention rates.

Harvard researchers found that listening makes us more likable as human beings, helping to form the foundation of interpersonal relationships. Applied to customers, building that likeability helps us align products and services with needs and expectations in senior living.

Whether it be an in-person complaint or a negative Google review, a poor customer experience eventually will make its way to the bottom line. Without protocols in place to react and respond expediently, inadequate listening can be a costly business model, one that many don’t know they employ. 

Steve Jobs recognized the value of listening in the early stages of designing Apple products.

“For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Jobs said of the iMac in a 1986 BusinessWeek interview. Certainly, each iteration of the iPhone incorporates consumer feedback by enhancing features rated important to consumers.

The same can be said of senior living. Gone are the days of the proverbial “suggestion box,” which only asks customers for feedback.

Listening to what older adults want and need from senior living, then acting on those insights, has led us to and through much innovation. At Sonata Senior Living, we use customer feedback to help us improve not only products and services but to develop them as well. Good listening has led to many multi-community initiatives, employee and resident based, with new company partnerships that benefit all.

Our “We Are One” campaign was developed following conversations about who we want to be and believing in the people that represent our brand. We asked our teams, residents and families what was important to them, conducted roundtable discussions with our frontline staff and, most importantly, listened and responded.

Similarly, our new employee recognition program, Sonata STARs, came from watching our team members interact in the field while listening to commentary from our residents and families about those team members. 

Asking for the feedback, listening while also observing, then finding a way to act on what we heard not only made us more likable as an employer; it also increased employee retention among our key team members, which directly affects the bottom line.

This type of feedback has been vital to helping Sonata combat the staffing issues that plague many in the senior housing industry today. Our ability to eliminate contract labor as an organization is closely tied to the value of listening and responding.

The concept, known as user innovation, has led to simple, yet brilliant, breakthroughs in product development that otherwise may have stayed hidden. In the way that data and surveys are used in operator-born innovations, listening to the needs of team members, residents and families is a source of natural innovation, providing new ideas that fulfill a hidden need.

It is the spontaneous behavior at the site of product use — in this case, feedback — that is far more valuable than a scripted focus group or survey ever could be. You expect innovation from a technology company, but change in senior living tends to be more latent. Improving our listening is one critical way we can accelerate innovation and truly make a difference in the lives of our residents, families and team members.

Jamie Merrill is COO of Sonata Senior Living and a 2022 McKnight’s Woman of Distinction Rising Star.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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