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

ELLE (Malaysia) - - BEAUTY PSYCHE -

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.”

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