How We Have Become Lousy Listeners, and Why This is a Problem
There are two main reasons why most of us have become lousy listeners.
Reason number one is that we are distracted. With constant competition for our attention, we are mentally pulled in multiple directions simultaneously nearly all the time.
And reason number two, we do not wish to take the time, nor put in the effort to be a focused, selfless, attentive listener.
We half listen, enough to get some or most of the information, but in actuality, are raring to jump in with our own opinions, our thoughts and feelings, and with what we want to say, bringing the floor back to us, me, ourselves.
Though there are of course, many reasons why people may not be great listeners, these are two central ones that I can pinpoint.
Now, to delve a bit further into and expand on each one…
Reason #1: Distraction. Our days are a flurry of activity, from phone calls, to texting, to reading numerous articles or from the book which we are currently immersed in, to discussion with colleagues, answering emails, checking in on dating apps, scrolling our Facebook newsfeed or Instagram, paying bills, going to the gym, walking the dog, finishing up work projects, talking on the phone to a friend/loved one, cooking dinner, you get the idea.
Each of our days are JAM PACKED with stimuli, activity, and distraction. We are bombarded with noise, advertisements, cell phones pinging, one-sided conversations can be heard everywhere we might be walking, car horns honking, phone app updates coming in, you name it.
We have literally hundreds of differing things/people/noises/apps/projects/work/ideas competing for our attention every hour of every day.
This makes slowing down, taking a deep breath, and pausing to actually focus, hone in on, and sink entirely into a social interaction with another person, no easy task.
Often times, when interacting with someone, instead are running through our minds all the things we have to do. Now, tonight, and tomorrow. If we are hungry and what we might eat for dinner. Our cell phone vibrating in our pocket, yanking us out of said social interaction playing out in front of us, our attention now on the phone.
We might be stressed, thinking about getting home to the kids. Remembering we forgot to do something, which we should have done. Recalling that pair of shoes we wanted to order and still need to. You get the idea.
Reason #2: Choosing not to take the time, nor put in the efforts to be fully present with or enthusiastically interested in the person in front of us. Because while there is an excessive level of stimuli in our daily lives, it is also a personal and conscious choice not to choose to be a good listener.
The majority of us just cannot be bothered, and/or, are far more interested in ourselves. While most of us would never agree to this claim, it is the truth. Our actions do (or do not) prove this self interest, by how much effort we put into truly listening to and inquiring about our companions.
Further, while the vast majority of us would likely claim being good listeners, feeling confident and sure of this, the reality is that most of the people who think this are not good listeners.
This is much like the statistic that the majority of people think they are above average and even excellent drivers, which is of course, impossible.
So, how might we asses this? What is good listening?
People tend to think good listening amounts to the following:
— not talking when others are speaking
— indicating that you are listening through nodding and making “mmm hmmm” noises
— being able to repeat what someone just said
That is merely the tip of the iceberg though, as well as in no way indicates good listening as a whole. Plenty of people do those 3 things and are either sub-par or even terrible listeners.
In truth, good listeners are few and far between. How do I know this, as well as you know it too?
Because when someone listens to us with intent, sustained interest, and focus, we feel it. Something within us lights up, feels comforted, thrilled, heard. There is an internal shift and opening that occurs in our hearts when this happens, because it is such a rare thing.
People congregate toward and flock to those who truly listen, because it is so uncommon. Those who actually listen to us are an extraordinary and scarce few.
Some people listen semi-well for a minute or two, but then usually drop off with their focus. Many people are merely waiting for the person they are with to be quiet so they now have the chance to jump in and speak. Or, are thinking of a multitude of other things as their companion is speaking and sharing with them. Thus, they are not mentally present.
All of us know this is the resounding norm with supposed “listeners” because we experience it all the time.
Think of the friends who are constantly checking their phones when with you. Many of us are outright hooked on our phones, glancing at and typing on them perpetually. And while a significant number of others are not necessarily hooked, they still use their phones to rude and distracting degrees when spending time with people.
Despite that this has become the norm, it is behavior that’s about as rude as it gets. Constantly checking your phone when spending time with someone. In fact, it even has an official term: phubbing. This is apparently the name given to the act of being snubbed by the person with whom you are spending time, as they take out their phone mid conversation with you.
This is behavior akin to pulling a book from one’s bag and, mid conversation with said human being, starting to read it. Incredibly dismissive and disruptive to the in-person interaction, it’s a way of saying you are only half interested in what your companion is saying, only partially engaged, though otherwise, your interest is very much elsewhere.
It’s a way of being half there. A method of showing your friend/love/companion, yeah, I am sort of here, but my focus and interest is easily stolen and drawn elsewhere.
Now, imagine the other people with whom you spend time, those who hardly let you speak a handful of sentences before cutting in and bringing the conversation back to them. The ones whose eyes frequently rove the room. Those who follow up with what they think you said, in their summarizing such or jumping in with what they believe is a related point, when in fact it’s way off.
Or, the friends who spend most of your time together just talking, and talking, and talking about themselves, their own life, their opinions, their recent experiences, the things they are struggling with or enjoying, etc.
Consider the people who feign listening for a short while before their eyes glaze over, their stare grows distant, and you can see they are not fully there any longer. Or, the ones who, following several of your inquisitive, interested, and curious questions of their life, have literally zero curiosity or interest for you in return.
These last several paragraphs describe the majority of people, and how well they claim to listen to the people in their life.
Why is this a problem? For many reasons.
-In relationships, for those who are good listeners, this grows exhausting, frustrating, and disheartening. The ones who do put in the interest, focus, and efforts to truly hear (and not just for 20 seconds, but for sustained periods of time), understand, and connect with their companions. The people who work hard (as listening is no easy task, it takes energy and focus) to give their friends, romantic partner, and others that gift of their listening.
These people will grow resentful, bitter, and tired of giving such a gift to others who are not willing nor interested in putting in reciprocal efforts. Thus, this can result in the losing of quality friends, when one cannot be bothered to learn the art of, nor put in the work of genuine listening with others.
Those friends you so love spending time with because, more often then not, they are present, intent, empathetic listeners? They will grow tired of this when it isn’t being reciprocated in the same measure.
-Poor listening is also a problem because it disconnects people from one another. A true connection is two sided, mutually shared and received.
An authentic, genuine friendship is one in which both people feel heard, both feeling their companion has an equal level of interest in them as they do the other.
Bad listening leads to low quality and often unsatisfying connections between people.
-We also miss valuable information when listening poorly. Every single social interaction, whether with a colleague, friend, loved one, you name it, has within it something we can learn. Each person with whom we spend time and interact, has areas of knowledge which we do not, as well as things of value to share. When we cannot be bothered to show interest and put in the efforts to inquire, learn about, and listen to these people in our lives, we are missing out.
Just as how within books we can learn a plethora of new ideas, life lessons, and insights, we too can gain these same insights from others with whom we choose to spend time. We cannot possibly hope to hear or take in any of this though, when unwilling to put in efforts toward focusing and listening.
It is important to note: no one can be an excellent listener all the time. Focused listening takes energy and work. It isn’t easy. No one can be a totally focused and top notch listener always (as we of course, have different moments that can hinder this, such as being exhausted one particular day, or sick, or experiencing something traumatic at the moment, or being within a particularly sad mood).
However, it’s crucial work, and is needed if one wants to have truly fulfilling, meaningful relationships with others.
Listening is a necessary part of the equation in all close relationships. Thus, it is of utmost importance to work actively on and put in the effort to be a great listener much of the time, with those you love.
Aim to be a focused, great, truly present listener 80–85% of the time. A 15–20% leeway seems reasonable and in enough acknowledgement of the unavoidable fact that we all have off days, moments of distraction, bad moods, or lagging energy. Much less than 85% though is lame and will become an issue within our connections to others (whether you are actively aware yet that it’s an issue or not).
To add one final thought: if the reason we are hanging out with family/friends/loves/colleagues is merely to talk, to just feel heard, to always have the floor, to ever be broadcasting our own thoughts and opinions, then this is not a genuine interest in friendship, nor is it any semblance of a real human connection in the making.
Instead, this is merely looking for a space in which to dump, to use others (subconscious or not), and find anyone who will listen to you broadcast and vent. This is self centered at its utmost.
A relationship and real connection between two people involves both wanting to be heard, as well as desiring hearing the other. It’s garnering meaning from feeling understood and seen, while having equal enthusiasm toward understanding and fully knowing the other person. And making this evident via your behavior, which means approaching the relationships we value with curiosity, inquiry, and then actually listening.
In short, if you decide to actively work on being and becoming a great listener (as well as choosing to spend time with those who offer you the same in return), you will have no shortage of immensely satisfying, enriching, and fulfilling relationships in your life.
A quick and dirty cheat sheet on the basics of good listening:
-Make eye contact. Roving eyes do not indicate listening or focus.
-Do not interrupt. Let the person get out their entire thought, even waiting several beats past their concluding, before you speak.
-To piggyback on the previous point…if, while someone is speaking, you are itching to talk, ready to speak, have loads of thoughts on the tip of your tongue read to come out with? You are not and were not listening to the speaker. True listening means focusing intently on and taking in their message. This cannot be done while formulating your own speech simultaneously.
-If other thoughts creep into your mind while your companion is speaking, push them away and refocus. Once they finish speaking, then take the time to consider what they said and how you might respond. Yes, this might involve several beats of quiet between their finishing and you responding. This is totally ok. In fact, it’s indicative of a far more thoughtful conversation in which both people are engaged and actually listening, as opposed to just blabbing over each other.
-One frequently misunderstood point: listening is not just hearing words. It’s attempting to perceive and feel how your companion might be feeling, as well as what message/emotions/points (not just the words) they are conveying and sharing with you. It’s really putting in effort to not just hear, but also understand them.
-For gods sake, get your phone off the table, out of your pocket (as even sensing it’s vibrations is still very distracting), and do not look at it when spending time with someone in a person-to-person interaction. Not only is this incredibly rude and dismissive, a total slap in the face to your companion whether a “norm” or not, it’s also quite distracting
To conclude: a worthwhile and awesome article from the Harvard Business Review: “What Great Listeners Actually Do.” Anyone serious about becoming a great listener, and thus deepening and improving their relationships, as well as being a far better friend/relation, should check this out.