Are you listening?
You nod and make all the right noises but how much of the conversation are you taking in? Meg Mason uncovers why conscious listening could be the key to getting ahead
We’re in a café. I’m describing a work issue involving company tax, internal auditors, something. You’re tired, and at the next table is a pair of loud talkers, one of whom has the cross-body bag you’ve been thinking about. Weird that she’s just dumped it on the floor when you know from MatchesFashion.com it’s RM8,000. Another piccolo? You probably shouldn’t because of that headache you’ve had for days and, oh, that’s right, you were going to make a doctor’s appointment. Anyway, shit, what was I saying? “So then, I realised the spreadsheet just couldn’t be showing the right totals...”
“That reminds me, I still have that headache I was telling you about, remember?”
Um. No. Because I wasn’t listening and neither were you. We might be hearing, we might even be giving each other sweet, sweet eye contact, but admit it – you barely caught a word of my killer accounting story and I have no record of said headache. Still, we shouldn’t feel bad. Neither my monologuing or your wandering mind is to blame for the quality of listening that, according to extensive research by the University of Minnesota, will have us catch and retain about half of what has been said. Within eight hours, we’ll be able to recall less than a third of the content, and in two months we’re down to a quarter, meaning our memory of the event will be skewed or a patchy construct, but either way wholly unreliable.
Considering the array of obstacles to listening well, it’s surprising we remember anything at all, or even try to be attentive when it’s so truly difficult and not, as you might assume, second nature at all. “Listening is definitely something we need to cultivate,” says clinical psychologist Dr Samantha Clarke. “In a basic, evolutionary sense, it’s not easy for us. Good listening requires a version of mindfulness and that is not something that comes naturally to most people.”
Think of even a few of the impediments to tuning in: environmental distractions, for one. We now live with a level of white noise entirely new in human experience. Push notifications, email alerts, screens always in our peripheral vision, a to-do list that scrolls through our minds like movie credits. If our concentration span is really shrinking, as some experts argue, periods of deep listening seem done for.
“Our minds have never really been able to concentrate on any one thing for prolonged periods,” explains Dr Tim Sharp of The Happiness Institute. “Experts suggest an hour, others as little as 15 minutes, but in reality our mind wanders every 15 to 20 seconds. Whether that’s a new phenomenon or not, modern living certainly isn’t improving it.”
In a single second, our brains are required to filter millions of pieces of information down to the roughly seven it can actually deal with at once, according to the groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the first to write extensively on how achieving a state of “flow” through active
engagement with other people enhances our own wellbeing. To make the cut, information has to be a threat to our safety, meaningful, unusual or humorous. Four strikes against my spreadsheet story.
Personality has an impact, too. While extroverts may look as though they’re deeply engaged in the exchange, it’s likely they’re really just waiting for their turn to talk, a measure of mental focus on what they’ll say next. Leading to, of course, the conversational hate crime that is continuous interruption. Even those naturally inclined to say less, and therefore hear more, could be more susceptible to listening with a “doing mindset” as opposed to a “thinking mindset”. Which is to say, rather than remaining open and curious to the speaker, their subconscious intent is to evaluate, assess, judge and search out evidence that does or doesn’t chime with their own beliefs.
And outgoing or reserved, all of us are keenly attuned to an internal narrative. Me FM. The observing mind, the inner critic – various ways describe the metachatter that begins at some point in childhood, when external narration makes a gradual switch to internal. And no matter the content, it impacts our ability to listen for one reason. You can think so much faster than I can talk. Most of us speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute, according to two separate studies reported in the Harvard Business Review, but with our thoughts powered by 13 billion or so brain cells, words and language course through our minds at a far greater speed. You don’t need to hang on my every word because you’re well able to scan ahead, predict where I’m going and keep a hold of the main thread all at once. Consciously slowing down our thinking is almost impossible, so while I move glacially towards my main point, you’ve got what the Harvard team call “spare thinking time”. Why not take a nice mental detour? Debate the cross-body bag! Only know that, the longer you stay away, the harder it will be to get back in, and since working to catch up is more mentally demanding than returning to your own private ruminations, guess which one you’ll do?
But again, that’s not our fault. There’s an evolutionary purpose to half-hearing. As well as sieving external stimuli, our minds are constantly trawling for emotional triggers. “The mind’s main job is to keep us safe by discerning danger so that the fight-or-fight mechanism can be triggered,” explains Clarke. “But we don’t discriminate between a physical threat and an emotional one, which in conversation might mean being attacked or misinterpreted. Either kind can activate the limbic system and move you to a state of high agitation.”
The limbic system is where primitive emotions live, so come marauding bear or verbal assault, basic programming tells us to shut down, retreat or get angry and strike back. In all-important attachment relationships, reactive responses are usually heightened, not minimised. So if you’ve ever wondered why listening to your partner deal out hard truth is more intense than taking it from a friend, wonder no more.
Staying socially connected is such a fundamental human need that as soon as dialogue takes a hazardous turn, we’ll shift focus off the speaker and onto our own performance in the conversation, at the cost of hearing pretty much anything from that point onwards. Is this issue our fault? Are we being boring? Are they mean? Should we brace for worse? Wait, what were you saying? On the flipside, trying deliberately to enhance your performance as a listener with those “mms” and “go ons” could just as likely serve as another mental distraction should you over focus on mirroring my body language, summarising my argument and squeezing in another “tell me more”.
In the workplace, the impact of being a genuinely awful listener may be as minimal as daily frustration, a bigger helping of impostor syndrome ( how shameful to miss an entire brief because your phone was vibrating with a Zappos sale alert) or eating a degree of shit from management for weak performance. If you are management, consistently failing to hear your staff is probably why invitations to Friday drinks are not forthcoming.
And in our most important relationships, poor listening can be emotionally fatal. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology and author of Love 2.0: Finding Happiness And Health In Moments
Of Connection argues that love isn’t a state of continuous romantic bliss. It’s micromoments of connection and synchrony, a feeling of being truly in tune with the other person over a period of time. Substitute “love” for “feeling listened to” and the definition holds. To quote Heather Wagoner, the director of internal communication and engagement at the BBC, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference.”