ARE YOU A GOOD LISTENER OR TOO BUSY THINKING WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY NEXT? A NEW BOOK EXPLORES THE IDEA …
When was the last time you really listened to someone? Listened without readying your response, listened without interrupting? How often do you check your phone, look around, when someone is talking to you? Or inversely, when was the last time you felt truly listened to? Listened to in a way that you felt properly heard and understood?
Writer Kate Murphy’s new book You’re Not Listening is a lament on losing our listening mojo. “Everyone’s dial is tuned to Transmit rather than Receive. We are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf, talking over one another at cocktail parties, work meetings, and even family dinners; groomed as we are to lead the conversation rather than follow it. Online and in person, it’s all about defining yourself, shaping then narrative, and staying on message. Value is placed on what you project, not what you absorb.” Listening, absorbing and understanding is becoming a lost art.
Yet listening “more than any other activity, plugs you into life,” says Murphy. “Listening helps you understand yourself as much as those speaking to you. When you listen and really get what another person is saying, your brain waves and those of the other speaker are literally in sync.” But Murphy paints a grim picture of modern listening: “If anyone tells a story longer than 30 seconds, heads bow not in contemplation but to read texts, check sports scores or see what’s trending online.”
Communication requires interpretation and interplay, and a thoughtful, feeling response. If someone comes to you with a worry, listen, and ask open and honest questions to communicate, advises Murphy. Say ‘I’m interested in hearing more’. If you jump in to fix, advise, correct or distract, you are communicating that the other person doesn’t have the ability to handle the situation. It’s this active, thoughtful listening that we all long to experience when we open up to others. For this sort of active listening conversation to take place, we need to slow down and take the time to listen.
Having a face-to-face conversation with someone – a friend, child, partner, or work colleague, where one talks; the other listens, should be easy, right? But our world now is so full of distractions, we struggle to focus and really listen when people talk to us. How many times this week have you had a conversation with someone who was looking at their smartphone while you were talking? Or nodded and smiled, and gave the appearance of listening, when someone spoke to you? How often do you walk into a restaurant and see a family sitting at a table, all glued to their phones, all silent – no one is talking, and no one is listening. We’re turning to the world of online apps and highly-edited messages to help forge new bonds. Even dating has migrated online, thereby eliminating the need for any real person-to-person communication. “Technology does not so much interfere with listening as make it seem unnecessary,” says Murphy, encapsulating this very modern predicament. “Our devices indulge our fear of intimacy by fooling us into thinking that we are socially connected even when we are achingly alone.”
Online and in person it’s all about defining yourself, shaping the narrative, and staying on message. Value is placed on what you project, not what you absorb.
Time spent on devices is time not spent talking to parents, to siblings, to friends. And in schools, teachers report that children are finding it ever harder to listen and concentrate in class, and ever more difficult to negotiate schoolyard interactions. And they put it down to children having too much screen time.
But they are only modelling what they see. Sixty six per cent of parents interviewed for a recent early childhood study believed it was acceptable for a young child to use technology freely. They admitted to checking their own devices somewhere between 57 and 100 times daily. Even toddlers understand what’s going on, as Murphy points out, describing a friend’s child who has repeatedly thrown his parents’ mobiles into the toilet. “No other objects, just the cell phones. He knows precisely what keeps Mum and Dad from listening to him.”
Psychologists worry that the decline in conversation, in real talking and listening, will mean children won’t learn the necessary skills to navigate the subtle nuances of face-to-face communication. Conversation is multi-sensory: see the person’s face, their gestures, hear their tone of voice, and you will sense how they are feeling, unlike online messaging which consists of pre-programmed likes, cartoon love hearts and grinning yellow emojis which mask a multitude of other emotions. Another drawback of the decline in listening skills is that children are less able to feel empathy, less able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, a life skill which is linked to long-term happiness and success in the workplace.
Years ago, I came across How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish who explain how we can get our children to talk by being an empathic listener. Murphy gives much the same advice: Acknowledge that you’ve heard them. Show them you are interested in what they have to say and that they are important to you by using phrases like “I understand.” “What about …” “That is interesting!” “Sounds like you’re saying …” or “How did that make you feel?” Open and comfortable communication with your children develops confidence, self-esteem, good relationships with others. Taking the time to foster your relationship and communication skills by talking with and listening to your kids pays dividends. Did I mention not interrupting? Know when to stay quiet.
Acquiring good listening skills can help boost career prospects too. But, as Murphy points out, “the very image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a podium. Giving a TED talk is living the dream.”
Instead of constantly broadcasting, business leaders need to recognise how empathic, reflective listening can benefit everyone in a company. Real relationships are created and real solutions found when people are willing to listen with the intent to understand. Listening means fewer errors, less wasted time. It motivates, leads to increased productivity and boosts staff morale. Cultivating a listening culture creates an environment where employees are comfortable voicing their ideas on how best to accomplish tasks and careful listening fosters understanding between parties, even in the face of disagreement. Making employees feel heard reduces the risk of losing them and can help to generate new ideas and identify opportunities. But most of all people just like being listened to: it makes them feel valued, connected and most importantly, as we experience a loneliness epidemic – not alone.
You’re Not Listening, What You Are Missing and Why it Matters, Kate Murphy, €17.99, Harvill Secker.
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