A Surprising Secret to Great Romances and Fantastic Friendships.

And good family relations, colleague connections, and neighbors.

image by Kyle Smith from Unsplash.com

Have you noticed that with many of the people you speak nowadays, most of them seem to have short attention spans?

Many of them might be quick to nod, seemingly listening, and then rapidly bringing the conversation right back around to them. “Oh, me too.” “I did that as well.” “Oh, you went to Maine? I own a home in Maine.” (Instead of, “Wow, how cool. Tell me more about your experience. What was it like for you?”).

A lot of people today, after seeming to listen for a handful of seconds, their eyes begin to wander. They might pick up their phone and type something for “sorry, just a minute” (despite this being incredibly rude and the ultimate form of dismissal, we have accepted this as “normal” and thus, apparently ok, which is why the behavior runs rampant).

Someone might read, maybe a paragraph or two of your article, and then feel entitled to comment on and even challenge it. This is the same thing as listening to one sentence or two of a person’s feelings, cutting them off, and then arguing with them as if you already know everything they were thinking and were going to say.

Most people today are not good listeners.

There is a good chance you too are one of them.

I used to be a terrible listener. And while I would not claim to be phenomenal at it (I absolutely have many moments in which I am still not great at it), I do think (and hope) that I’ve improved significantly in this area. That was not without much effort and learning, though.

Being a terrible listener is a major hindrance to emotionally deep, truly satisfying, connected relationships. Being a half-assed listener is a barrier to connection. It keeps you always, somewhat, at arm's length from each other. Not choosing (because yes, it is an active choice to listen and focus) to put in the effort (and yes, it takes some work) to be a good listener tells the other person all of the following: “I don’t really care. I’m not really that interested in you. I don’t actually respect you that much. I can’t be bothered. Other things are more important to me right now.”

Here are the reasons that many of us (myself included at varying times throughout my life), and possibly you too, are not great listeners.

Cell phone obsession.

Let’s just admit it collectively once and for all. A vast majority of us are hooked on our cell phones. Most people spend between 1 and 4 hours on their phones each day, and many spend far longer.

A study was done by Kevin Holesh, an app developer, who designed an app called Moment, which tracked people's daily screen time.

88 percent of Holesh’s users were spending an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones! More than any other daily activity, except sleeping.

Each month, almost one hundred hours were lost to checking email, texting, playing games, surfing the web, checking bank balances, and so on.

Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a jaw-dropping eleven years spent on one's phone. What a waste, eh? Think of all you could do with that 11 years instead of staring at a screen and scrolling.

On average, the participants were picking up their phones about 3x every hour, sometimes even more.

Further, numerous studies have been done in which strangers are paired off in twos to go and have a conversation. Some people had a cell phone on the table while they chatted, others did not (no cell phone in sight). Every time, the pairs who had the smartphone nearby described the relationship they’d formed as lower quality and found their conversational partner less empathetic and trustworthy.

Phones are incredibly disruptive to our lives, whether in active use or even just sitting by idly. One of the single most things we could do to radically improve the relationships in our lives? Put away the damn phones already.

(Note: this information about cell phone obsession can be found, in-depth, in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. I highly recommend it).

Too many other stimuli.

Social media updates. Notifications and updates popping up on your screen. Emails from your boss. Texts from your colleagues. Instagram scrolling.

The sounds of car horns, buses, dogs barking. The electronic blare of music videos playing aloud in public from people’s cell phones. People now taking their phone calls on speakerphone while out in public, so everyone is forced to hear both sides of the conversation. Loud radios playing forth from cars. Booming music inside restaurants so one can hardly even heard their companion.

Your second job, needing you to hurry up and finish that other project. Instacart order edits appearing on your phone every five minutes. While working on a presentation for work, popups appearing of emails and notifications for other things, pulling your focus this way and that.

You get the idea. We are bombarded with stimuli from all angles, throughout most of our waking minutes and hours. This can make pausing, tuning in, and focusing fully on another person, an incredibly difficult task.

Diminished Attention Spans

In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr discusses how cell phones, scrolling, texting, and typing, and how constantly jumping from one website to the next, then opening an email, then checking Instagram, how all of this (it’s been proven by science) is diminishing and chipping away at our degree to really tune in and focus on something for a sustained period of time.

For instance, ten years ago, a lot of people had the attention span to sit down and read a book for an hour or two, uninterrupted. Today? You might read for five or ten minutes before finding your hand mysteriously, subconsciously, reading for your phone.

The way that cell phones deliver information to us, in short, fast bursts, and with lots of enticing distraction, (and this, combined with our obsession with our cell phones so we use them all the time) is winnowing away our ability to focus deeply on things for a long period of time.

Ever heard of Neuroplasticity? The issue with our diminishing focus gets worse. Not only is the method by which we take in information today diminishing our attention spans (in short bursts and often via screens), but it is also literally changing the way our brains work.

So, it isn’t just a habit that can easily be changed. Yes, you can change it, absolutely, and you should. But it will take hard-won effort because your brain is being changed on the inside by this change in how we take in information.

The solution? Put away that cell phone. Limit your time on it to one hour or less every day (the official recommended guideline). Otherwise, keep it in another room and leave it alone. Turn off screens in the evenings. Read books more. Get out into nature more. Have lengthily, deep conversations with people over a few hours' time, without any distractions. Do crossword puzzles and Suduko (not on a screen. Do it on a page in a book). Play board games.

All of this can help your brain not to be altered, in a bad way, by our current technology.

Not that interested.

Now, the more hurtful reason people may not be good listeners. They just aren’t that interested. When you spend time with someone and they do not ask you a single question about yourself, when their gaze wanders, when they keep looking at their phone, this means they are just flat-out not that interested in you. They might say they are. They might insist they are. But they aren’t. If they were, their behavior would reflect it. Actions tell us how people really feel. Not words.

In which case, why waste time with people who are not interested in you? Move on and make room for the ones who are.

You want and deserve relationships to be a two-way interest street. Just like you should care deeply about what is happening in your friend's lives, about their emotional experiences, their thoughts, and how they are doing, they should also care about yours. If they don’t care much, they aren’t really a good friend.

Both people in the relationship should be truly curious about and interested in one another, and their behavior should reflect this. If it doesn’t? Move on.

Coddled and Closed-Off to Opinions of Others.

This has become a thing nowadays, though especially in America. A lot of people have decided if I don’t agree with you and if I don’t like what you have to say, or if you offend me, I’m done.

Though it is important to speak up, to challenge people who might be wrong, hurtful, ignorant, and even harmful, it is also foolish to plan on running through your life with your ears covered up. Being a human in the world means you will come across people and things that upset or offend you. And guess what?

This is a great learning experience for everyone involved.

Also, we forget this all the time today: just because something offends or upsets you, does not mean it’s wrong. On the contrary, you might be wrong, and it might be an area you need to be challenged on and be something you need to hear.

Listen carefully, to the whole argument. Then, offer up your own insights and thoughts.

You might teach the other person something here, which would not have been able to happen if you’d just run off.

And, in turn, listen carefully to them. Remember, just because something upsets you does not mean it isn’t worth hearing. You also might learn something in turn and grow yourself.

We need to reclaim our openness and daring towards listening to something that we might not initially agree with or like. This is how people learn, are able to also teach one another, and both might grow as a result.

Not putting in the effort.

A lot of people do not really care or possess the sense of thoughtfulness that being a good listener takes. Good listening doesn’t just happen. It’s a choice. You have to choose to do it. There are many people out there who cannot be bothered to put in the effort.

This is similar to not being interest. It’s connected to not being interested. Though it is not one and the same.

Listening carefully takes energy. It requires focus. It isn’t always easy. And some people just cannot handle this.

Self-centered, the main interest being themselves.

This is a big reason for terrible listening nowadays. A lot of people are not especially interested, not deeply interested, not truly curious, in the lives, feelings, experiences, and opinions of others.

They are, instead, far more interested in themselves. In posing just so for their selfies. In what other people think of them. In impressing others. In their opinions, their thoughts, their experiences. In what they desire and want right now (the feelings of others? Eh, too bad. I do me and you do you).

Many people are way too self-centered and wrapped up in their own dramas, their own thoughts, their own interests, their own feelings, to step outside of that and truly care of have interest in others.

This is a sad thing. These people will struggle with loneliness and shallow relationships throughout their lives. Most people will not enjoy being around these people. Not for long anyway.

Choosing to be a good listener takes effort. It isn’t often easy. It is, however, one of the most worthwhile, important, and rewarding things you can choose to do and choose to get good at, for having fantastic relationships. Read some books about it. Practice it regularly. Put in the effort. You will notice your connections with others will improve by leaps and bounds if you do so. You will become a wiser person because of it too.

And for the people who do not extend you the same respect, effort, and interest? Move on. There are still good listeners out there who want to have great relationships and who are curious about others. Don’t waste time on dissatisfying and disappointing connections who cannot be bothered to have this respect towards you too.

Decide to become a great listener. It’ll change your life.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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