Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Act of Listening

In an era of instant access, feedback, and conversation, the act of listening has taken a back seat to the act of speaking. Conversation has been replaced with the act of being heard, and social media has given people the platform and convenience of doing it on-demand. This is replicated across our TV’s and news stations, breeding new desires to speak sooner, to speak louder, and to ensure we are heard. 

With the rise of technology there has been an increased detachment from true conversation. Twitter and Facebook are just two examples of platforms that can further this detachment, but the problem doesn't stop there. Pew Research found that 73% of cell phone users send and receive text messages. Of those, nearly one-third said that they preferred communicating through text messages rather than speaking on the phone. But what does this mean? 

We, as a society, are becoming increasingly more concerned with getting our message out than the interaction or dialogue that may surround it. The myriad of communication mediums gives us the option to forego human interaction, and allows us to evangelize our message to as broad an audience as possible, as often as we like. This is exacerbated by the willingness of others to listen to our message without a face-to-face response, instead choosing to dialogue over the web and accepting the human disconnect as par for the course.

A 2013 market study by Arbitron and Edison Research concluded that the average Facebook user, ages 12 and up, had an average of 303 friends. Through that same study, the 18-24 demographic responded with the highest value amongst those polled, averaging 510 friends. Considering 23% of Facebook users check their account 5+ times a day (roughly every 90 minutes), there is good reason to understand why human interaction is becoming unnecessary.

So how did we get here? Perhaps it is the shift in our environment; from a primarily auditory or haptic structure to a predominantly visual one. As a modern society, our homes are stocked with computers, tablets, and smart phones. Each device addresses us in an individual and visual way. We are ever-connected and one click away from the latest status update, Instagram picture, or "10 ways to..." article. The shift has been subtle yet profound. Without auditory or haptic experiences, our verbal communication suffers.

But is technology the real driver here, or is this something we, as humans, innately suffer from? Author Brenda Ueland wrote on this very subject, penning the idea that as far as listening, "...we forget it. And how we don't listen to our children, or those we love." She expounds that "when we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other."  As relevant as these words are for our society today, Ueland passed away nearly 30 years ago.

When we concern ourselves more with ensuring our message is heard rather than diving deep and listening to the other person, our relationships suffer. This, over time, dulls our listening skills, and without frequent use, we lose out on the benefits of listening; getting to know someone or fully understanding not just what the person is saying, but how they are saying it. In the business world, this means positioning the wrong product or solution set, not clearly understanding the client's problem, or missing out on building a layer of trust around the project or sale. It also helps to eliminate blind spots we may be developing socially as well as cut off close-mindedness.

Ueland also argues that the act of listening spawns creativity. She postulates that "when people really listen (to us), with quiet, fascinated attention, that the little fountain (spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination) begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way".

A practical example of this can be found in brainstorming. When a new idea is presented, it is often challenged or modified into something even better than the original through constructive dialogue - something that requires attentive listening.

So how can we save the frog in the warming kettle? It starts with a culture shift, one conversation at a time.

We must learn when to turn technology off. As much as we think we are natural multi-taskers, the person in front of us is more important than the email, blog, tweet, or status update. Be engaged.

We must actively listen to ensure we are hearing the other person correctly. This means repeating, summarizing, or confirming what you think was said, and to dig at the areas that may be inferred. Ask clarifying questions that show you understand the other person, or are trying to understand them.

We must understand that this issue is holding us back from being a better version of ourselves, both personally and professionally. Without it friendships and relationships remain stagnant. Sales will be lost. Partnerships will stall.

The act of listening must be passionately pursued. Our future depends on it.