“What are you doing?” he said. “Me? Nothing.” I squeaked. Caught again. My boyfriend and I talk on the phone every day and it was the third time that week that he’d noticed that I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t really doing anything else, but my mind drifted and came back a moment too late.
Has this ever happened to you? Someone is talking to you and your mind wanders. Something the person said reminds you about your grocery list, or what happened at work that day, or you start to think of that song from an 80s girl group. You know the group that sings that song you really like? What was the name of that song anyway? Oops, did you say something? By the time you’ve returned from your trip down memory lane, the person has moved on to the next topic and you’ve missed their whole story. Or maybe they notice like my boyfriend did. And what follows is awkward silence and hurt feelings.
Or maybe you’re guilty of multitasking while you’re on the phone. You’re talking to your friend while watching TV and taking a test on BuzzFeed, “What Vegetable Are You Most Like?”. Again, you’re missing out on what and who is right in front of you.
I used to be a great listener. Friends and family would call me to talk about their problems, their dreams, and their hurts. I once wanted to be a psychologist and get paid to listen. It’s only been in the last few years that my listening skills have gotten so bad that I’ve wondered if there is such a thing as Adult Onset Attention Deficit Disorder. (I’ve checked, there isn’t.) So I had to confront a reality — “Hi, my name is Juliette and I’m a crappy listener.”
Unfortunately, if there were support groups for crappy listeners they would fill football stadiums. I’m not alone in my situation, apparently effective listening is becoming as rare as handwritten letters. And why the decrease? Listening is a skill and our attention spans are getting shorter, which means we’re putting less effort into listening. According to studies, the average attention span is about 8 seconds, 1 second shorter than that of a goldfish. The culprits? Technology, multitasking, and a busier society.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
So how do you make the journey from being a poor listener to a better listener? Some experts propose using Active Listening techniques. Active Listening is “where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.” There are five steps to Active Listening.
- Pay Attention: Don’t multitask or let your mind drift. Give the speaker your full attention to make sure you’re not misinterpreting what they’re saying or miss any information.
- Show That You’re Listening: What good is listening if the speaker looks at your body language and thinks that you’re bored? Let your actions and gestures convey that you’re listening. If you’re in person, make eye contact with the speaker, lean forward to demonstrate your interest. If you’re on the phone, use comments like “yes,” “I see,” “Tell me more,” or simply “Mmm hmm” to show that you are engaged in what the speaker is saying.
- Provide Feedback: Feedback is not the same as advice or judgment. You’re trying to understand the speaker’s experience and point of view, not asset your own. Ask questions to clarify the speaker’s meaning and to get more depth from the conversation.
- Defer Judgment: Give space for the speaker to feel safe to express herself/himself. Try not to interrupt or give your interpretation of what they’re saying.
- Respond Appropriately: Active Listening allows you to gain greater perspective on the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. Be prepared that you may not like what you hear, but this is an opportunity for you to have an open and honest conversation. Think before you speak and be authentic in your response yet speak in a way that encourages respect.
Listening is not something that you do for other people, you will also reap the benefits. The costs of poor listening include loss of intimacy and connection with your loved ones, and tension in your relationships, whether they are personal or professional. Poor listening can cause misunderstandings, errors, and waste time when the speaker has to repeat the information again.
I can report that personally, I have reaped the benefits of not only improving my listening skills with my boyfriend but with others. I’m working to being the person my loved ones can come to and feel safe to reveal who they really are.