The Lost Art of Listening

Friday, January 16, 2015
I don't know about you, but lately I've noticed that in this age of high-tech communication, a very fundamental piece of communication seems to be becoming scarce.  People seem to be losing their capacity to listen.  Let me elaborate....  but first, let us examine the definition of listen:


: to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc.
—used to tell a person to listen to what you are saying
: to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true
(Merriam Webster)

Before the age of cell phones, texting, facebook, instant messaging and email, people actually spoke to one another.  We picked up a telephone and had a conversation with people.  We even got together with people, maybe over a meal or at each other's homes, and had a conversation that involved looking into each other's eyes.  If we had a question for someone, we'd ask them - in person or through a phone call.  If you wanted to thank someone for a kind gesture, we wrote thank-you notes.  If we had an issue with someone, you talked about it.
Nowadays, we're all too busy.  People are looking for instant gratification, an immediate response.  We abbreviate our words in texts.  We try to find a way to say what we need to say using as few words as possible.  We share our news on facebook - sometimes even big news such as pregnancy, engagements, promotions, news that would one day warrant a phone call, even many phone calls to all of our friends or relatives.  In all of these instances, people listened to what we had to say.  We answered the phone, we read notes that came in the mail, we made time to see people and share life's latest happenings with our family and friends.
While modern communication has its advantages, I think it has more disadvantages.  Sure, we can contact people on the spot through a text making sure they get our message, even if they're not home.  And that's convenient because it moves the "task" from our plate to theirs with the speed of striking a few the ball is in their court to respond.  Perhaps another advantage might be that the details of the call are in writing, say details of dates or times of meetings, etc....where a phone call might be forgotten.   But overall, I believe the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages and here's what I mean.  Today's methods of communication have pretty much taken all human connection out of the equation.  We communicate without much emotion or enthusiasm.  We're left to express our emotion with the use of exclamations points, emoticons, and acronyms.  People don't see our facial expressions, good or bad, and don't hear our tone.  It's easy then to misunderstand a person's reaction and can lead to erroneous conclusions.  Often we jump to conclusions, sometimes creating disagreements when there aren't any.  On the phone, we could clarify misunderstandings immediately.  Instead, in email or texts, even in a facebook post, we're sometimes left with minutes or hours of misunderstanding and confusion.   Also, when we are communicating in such a limited format, we actually talk less.  Think about many of you can relate to this.   You're at work and you are emailing with a co-worker about a task.  You go back and forth with emails and after several hours, several emails, you complete the task or understanding about the task and realize that if you could have just had a "real conversation", the issue might have been resolved in a matter of minutes.  Why?  Because when you speak, you can use several words, more expression and come to an understanding way faster than when communicating in texts or emails.  Yet today's society has minimized the value of face-to-face communication and made us all believe that this new, high-speed, high-tech communication is the "right way" to communicate, a more convenient, or efficient way to communicate.  In some ways, that may be true, but beyond the downfalls I've already mentioned, the worst result of this age of technology is the lost art of listening!

Have you noticed that people have become bad listeners?  Now, not everyone is a bad listener.  I have a husband (an introvert) who is always an outstanding listener.  I have some good friends who are also good listeners - all of them listen because we have face-to-face contact.  But.....we are losing our ability to actually focus and listen when people talk.  We are no longer accustomed to stop multitasking and give our attention to someone who is talking to us.   For example, if someone walks into our office to talk, we stop what we're doing and listen.   Not the case so much when we get an email or text.  We have gotten accustomed to checking texts and emails while we do other tasks.   We send emails - sometimes while we watch TV.  People don't pick up the phone like they used to to "catch-up".   Communicating has become a SOLO task - we talk and then we go about our business and wait for a response.  We need not sit there, look into someone's eyes or listen on a phone receiver, to actually hear a person's response.  Communicating is no longer a two-way conversation.  And then.......what is ultimately happening is that people are losing their ability to pay attention.  We don't listen to hear, we listen to respond.
We have added talking to our long list of chores that must be done and in our fast paced world, even that has to be done asap and crossed off the list.  When we do finally have someone on the phone or in front of us, our minds drift and we get distracted by the many things we need to do after this call or meeting.  Or in our constant quest to be efficient and save time, we finish people's sentences for them so we can move the conversation along.   If you've had this happen, you understand how frustrating it can be and how unimportant your conversation appears to be, like your listener's focus is not in understanding, but in getting on with the next 'thing'.    People don't make as many phone calls.  When given the option of picking up the phone or texting or emailing, we choose the option that requires the most immediate and least personal method, not because we are choosing to be impersonal or less friendly, but because we feel it is the most efficient method.  We rationalize our decision by thinking it will be less of an imposition on the person we're contacting because they can receive our call and respond when it's 'convenient' for them.  Today's high-speed communication is turning us into emotionless robots programmed to perform, but not feel.  An exaggeration?  Maybe but personal interaction is definitely diminishing in today's world. 
As much as I've made all of these observations and disliked them, I too have found myself to be a less than attentive listener at times.  I find myself distracted sometimes, multitasking while on the phone.  Sometimes even as a passenger in a car, or in a restaurant, I might be checking my email or texts instead of being a dedicated listener/observer.  It's a virus that has infected many of us and one that might warrant some conscientious behavior modification.
 Here's an idea:
- The next time you have a need for conversation, consider doing it in person or over the phone.
- Try to exchange one text encounter each day for one more personal exchange.
- Step back in time and make a phone call to a friend.  Spend some time really listening to what that friend has to say - without multitasking while you listen.
- Really listen....and let them finish their sentence, even if you do know where it's going.
- Use reflective listening - reiterate what they've said so they know you heard and understand.  This isn't just good practice in therapy sessions, but in all communication.
- Look into people's eyes.  The eyes are the path to the soul.  Last I looked, my phone and computer screen did little to endear me to those with whom I communicated.

So, as it says in the part 3 of the definition above - listen to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important and true! 
Today I heard a sermon with a powerful message.  From James 1:19, "Be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger.  In a world where we're all focused on being right, God's doesn't want us to be right to each other, He wants us to be right WITH each other.  How many times have you (and I) persisted in making our point, making sure we stated our case to someone, trying to convince them that we're right?  I know I'm so guilty of that.  Almost nothing bothers me more than not being understood, especially if I lose an argument because I am being misunderstood.  But what this sermon reminds us is that it's more important to be right with each other than it is to be right TO each other.  What good does it do to win an argument if in the end we walk away having hurt or offending the person who we were trying to convince.  We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger.  We need to be right WITH each other.  Isn't that what communication is really all about? 

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