As briefly mentioned in a previous post, technology has worsened our already fickle attention spans. Genuine listening requires setting aside our own judgments and emotions, but our own expectations often complicate these matters and compel us to react a certain way. Listening is a silent and strenuous activity that requires effort, there are a number of reasons why people aren’t listening.
The listener is more often than not preoccupied with their own thoughts or distracted by external influences, like texting or constantly checking their phone. Most people can sense when the listener is not interested in what they’re saying, and will be hurt or shut down if they feel dismissed.
For example, you are meeting a friend for lunch to catch up on each other’s lives. Your friend rants about how he got fired from another job (he goes from job to job every 6 months). His story wasn’t the same as usual, but you already got the gist of it and decide to tune him out. You can say the right thing a hundred times in a row, but on the hundred-and-first time your freudian slip peeks through. You were sympathetic with her in the past, but after a stressful morning you accidentally blurt out, “Again? No surprise there.”
Our prejudices interfere with genuine listening, manifesting in the forms of presumptions and defensive reactions. The speaker’s statements may trigger pain and anger, which can lead to unwanted conflicts and defensiveness. In order to truly understand, we need to listen and empathize. For instance, sometimes we ask lead-in questions that serve as an opportunity to talk about ourselves. We interrupt with phrases like, “Me too,” or “That reminds me of the time…” in order to return the focus to us. We need to concentrate on the speaker and tune out our inner voices for a few moments.
Since listening is an active process, it requires a certain level of self-control to ignore our memories, desires, and judgments. Listening so intensely can be difficult to maintain and oftentimes we think we’re listening when we’re really just pushing our own agendas or reinforcing our presumptions. It’s painful to confront our imperfections and failed attempts at effective listening. We need to compartmentalize our own feelings and thoughts, then after we’re done listening, we’ll get our turn to express ourselves.
Our biases are rooted in our experiences, once we discover the source of these prejudices, we can relinquish those impulsive dispositions and replace them with kind words and unselfish motives. Only once the anger and grief fade away, can intrigue and compassion be restored and we expand our understanding of each other.