You’re sitting with an old friend—or a colleague, or even a new business prospect, and your phone buzzes. That Pavlovian response is nearly impossible to ignore (try it), and so you take a peek. But you aren’t just peeking. That quick glance away has caused a disconnect with your conversation partner, and even though you still seem to be listening, you’ve mentally interrupted the conversation. And not just for that micro-second—because now that you saw the text, you’re formulating your response. You’re attempting to tune in to two stations at once—the one in front of you, and the one on your phone. But your brain doesn’t work that way.
Between the conversation happening now and the one you’re having with a dozen other people creates an internal cacophony that never ceases, and not only does it affect your ability to focus—it affects your relationships. Because every time you so much as glance at your phone in the presence of someone else, you put your relationship through death by a thousand cuts. We have a real crisis in our culture—the infinite splintering of our attention. And it’s making you more stressed.
The funny thing is, we all THINK we’re really good listeners. But not so much. In a post for U.S. News and published on Huffington Post, Laura McMullen points out the essential hypocrisy at the heart of this attention deficit—in that we do the thing that we hate is done to us. She cites psychologist Paul Donoghue, co-author of Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication with Mary Siegel:
“Most people are very aware that other people don’t listen, but they’re not nearly as aware that they themselves don’t listen…So don’t presume you’re a good listener.”
She points out that our rush to fit more and more in to every conversation and every second that goes by causes us to do things like interrupt, distract ourselves, and problem finding, when you listen just far enough to hear the problem you can solve, rather than hearing someone out. And it hurts—just as it would if it were you.
One of the mainstays of my stress management philosophy, and that of meQuilibrium, which I founded to help people shift their stress response, is that we can change the way we handle stress. And attempting to do more in every moment isn’t the solution. Listening is not only vital to the life of your relationships; when done right, it strengthens your focus muscle—and the more focused you can be on the activity at hand, in this case a conversation, the less stressed you’ll be because you’re not allowing a thousand things to get in the way.
You want to have better focus, better and more fruitful conversations with people who leave you feeling listened to, then you’ve got to practice.
Give Your Undivided Attention
Giving much-needed, nonjudgmental advice can be transforming—but one of the simplest and most powerful things you can do for another person is simply to listen.
When you do, you:
- Express to that the other person, be it an adult or a child, that he or she is worthy of your attention and respect.
- Gain more insight into this person and your relationship.
- Improve the quality of your relationships, which in turn provide you with much-need support when you’re stressed or down.
- Transform an ordinary conversation to one that fosters growth and higher self-esteem.
- Find a quiet place. If need be, take the person aside or into a less highly trafficked area to reduce your chances of being interrupted.
- Put the phone away. Nothing undercuts a conversation like a digital distraction. Even keeping it on the table can send the message that this talk is subject to any beep, buzz, or ding.
- Resist the urge to jump in. Sometimes we interrupt in an attempt to support or assist. Fight this tendency; say nothing for a few minutes while the other person completes his or her thoughts.
- Pause. When that person has finished what she wants to say, allow a moment to pass before you jump it. It shows that you were really listening.