Be quiet. Mute the TV. Pause the music.
Listen to the wind and the birds or to the voices around you. Just listen. Listen and breathe.
For some reason it’s incredibly calming and relaxing to stop with what we’re doing and just listen to our surroundings for a while. Yet listening to people speak makes us, well me at least, impatient. Why can we listen to our surroundings or, better yet, to music with complete focus and without feeling a need to interrupt, but when we are having a conversation we can’t focus on what the other person has to say?
I’m the first to admit that I can be a terrible listener, so I decided to do some digging on the topic and the general consensus seems to be that listening is difficult because it’s a passive action rather than an active one. This in turn gives our brain the opportunity to wander with reduced listening comprehension as a result.
These days smartphones, which should perhaps be renamed to Distraction Devices, are not helping much either because even the faintest buzz or blinking LED creates a distraction and an almost uncontrollable urge to find out what’s going on. Hint: It probably isn’t important.
So what can be done to curb attention back to the speaker? How can we focus?
I suppose that the first step is obvious; get rid of distractions. I don’t just mean muting the phone, but also get rid of mental distractions. It’s hard to pay attention to a conversation when you’re worrying whether the pie has been in the oven for too long. Finishing tasks and avoiding potentially long conversations when there’s a deadline looming on the horizon would also help in reducing mental distractions. Oh, and so is turning off the TV. Listening and multitasking just don’t seem to go hand-in-hand very well.
The logical next step would be to focus more actively, though not so much on the conversation, but more on the other person. Eye-contact. Following the movements of one’s lips. In a non-creepy non-psychopath kinda way, obviously. By letting our eyes wander less, so does our mind. That’s the theory anyway.
Anyone who has ever watched a Louis Theroux documentary will have noticed how he often stays quiet in order to let the interviewee do the talking, who in return shares thoughts he wouldn’t otherwise share with anyone. Mr. Theroux is one of the best interviewers in my opinion, while he rarely talks or even asks questions during interviews. He’s an exemplary listener.
My challenge for this week is simple. Give people my undivided attention. Put my Skype calls on full-screen and disconnect my keyboard. Physically turn off my phone. Whatever it takes.
In the words of one of the least likable TV characters of all times: I’m Frasier Crane and I’m listening.