When was the last time you listened to someone for an extended period? And I mean, truly listened. No glancing at the phone, thinking about your other problems, or how to respond to them. Just the attentive focus on what they are saying with the intention to understand. Listening seems like a part of who we are, and we do it all the time. Or do we? In fact, few of us know how to truly listen.
Listening takes effort. It is much easier to exchange a couple of emojis over social media. It seems more efficient and fit for the modern, fast-paced world. Yet learning to truly listen can enhance your relationships, your world experience, and your existence. We are connected to hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people over social media. Yet, we don’t have a meaningful and deep conversation with any of them.
“We are connected to hundreds of people over social media. Yet, we don’t have a meaningful and deep conversation with any of them.”
Why we stopped listening to each other
What did you do thirty years ago when you came back from vacation? You may have bought a postcard or two with a picture of the destination; the rest were you describing what the place looked like and what did you experience. And others listened to every word you said. Today, you show them pictures or videos on your phone, and there is no need to describe anything and no need for them to listen.
We don’t build listening habits anymore. We scroll through the endless feed on social media in hopes of seeing what’s going on and making connections with the world. We don’t know how to truly listen. Our inability to listen is then accompanied by loneliness. We don’t have deep conversations, and then we feel that no one listens and no one cares. We feel that we don’t belong anywhere.
“We don’t have deep conversations, and then we feel that no one listens and no one cares. We feel that we don’t belong anywhere.”
We can’t even follow any examples as the media don’t have time for dialog. TV shows are full of drama where people yell and push their view of the world instead of listening to each other. Even when watching the news on TV, you see a couple of minutes long spots that don’t allow for any meaningful information to be passed. Talk shows are not about listening to what the guests are saying but about the host showing off their wits. Politicians don’t have dialogs to work together, but rather each has their monolog, not even trying to pretend that they listen to the opposing party. For example, if you have ever listened to the US congressional hearings, you probably wondered why they are called “hearings” since no one listens. Many representatives use these hearings to enhance their image and feeling of self-importance rather than trying to listen and understand those invited to speak. Interruptions, pontifications, and berating of the speaker are part of the game. When you read the transcript, you will often find the word “crosstalk” written in all caps to indicate that everyone was talking simultaneously and the transcriber couldn’t follow the conversation. Everyone talked, and no one listened.
In You’re Not Listening, Kate Murphy points to studies showing how little listening is done, even by journalists and commentators. Instead of talking to real people, they often rely on social media to get their information. They look at what’s trending on social media and use it to represent what the public is thinking and is interested in. No matter that it is estimated that between 15%-60% of social media accounts are fake (a study of Twitter from 2017, data from Facebook from 2020). For example, 20% of tweets during the 2016 US presidential elections came from bots rather than real people.
Who do we listen to?
Murphy points to the 90-9-1 rule of the internet. It states that 90% of users of a given social media platform are passive observers, 9% comment and contribute occasionally, and only 1% generate the majority of the content. It is obviously just an approximation, and the numbers will vary across platforms, but the majority is always passive. More importantly, the 1% is not the typical representative of the population. These are often people who believe that the world should listen to what they have to say. They have the time to spend enough time on the platform and try to attract attention. And the best way to do that is by generating controversy and outrage. The goal is not to have a meaningful conversation but to generate engagement, and shallow misleading comments work the best.
“1% of users of social media platforms generate the majority of the content. These people often try to attract attention to themselves rather than to have a conversation, and the best way to do that is by generating controversy and outrage.”
Kate Murphy talks about her conversation with psychologist Judith Coche who ran into an interesting phenomenon in her clinical practice in couple’s group therapy. Who do you think you are more likely to listen to, a loved one or a stranger? As it turns out, it would be the stranger. People in long-term relationships tend to lose their curiosity about each other. They get convinced that they know the other person well because they have known each other for ages. And so they stop listening. This doesn’t apply only to married couples but also to your relationship with friends or kids. There is even a word for it, the closeness-communication bias.
Listening is essential for any successful communication. Part of listening is the realization that what you know and what I know are two different things. We each have our view of the world, and because we believe that it is the reality, everyone must see it the same way. Well, people don’t. Anything in the world can be looked at from different angles. Our past experiences form our view of the world. What I believe as the reality might be significantly different from what you believe. If we both start communicating without trying to understand the other person’s frame of reference, we will fail. The only way is to stop making assumptions and start listening with the intent to understand where the other person is coming from.
“Never assume that you know the other person and what they want. People change, and what was true yesterday may not be true today.”
Never assume that you know the other person and what they want. People change. What was true yesterday may not be true today. Not to mention you may have misunderstood them even yesterday. Just look at small children where the progress is most noticeable. Yesterday they would be happy if you helped them finish a simple puzzle. Today they will push you away as they already know how to do it and don’t want your help. They will object to being treated like the little kid they were yesterday. They are a day older and different. You need to observe and listen and then treat them as the new person they are.
Once you forge a friendship or any relationship where you learn to truly listen to each other, it stays with you. Even if you don’t see that person for years, once you meet again, you can quickly get on the same wavelength and start listening again.
The same can’t be said when you listen to people not close to you. There you have to fight numerous biases that make you a bad listener. You keep projecting your expectations and assumptions into what the other person says. You project any stereotypes and prejudices you have into the other person, and then you look for consistency. And your brain often finds it. Two people can say the same words to you, but you will hear completely different things. It is not that the other person doesn’t know how to communicate. It is you who doesn’t know how to listen.
Putting it all together
Technology is making us listen less. We don’t listen because there is so much information at our fingertips that we don’t believe we need to listen to others. It is so much easier to check social media, scroll through a couple of posts, pictures, and headlines, and feel that you are informed. But you are not. Aside from the fact that many things you read are coming from dubious sources promoted by fake social media accounts, you are overloaded with irrelevant information and missing important things and human connections.
Learn to put down your device, disconnect from the internet and have a real human conversation. Listen to whoever you are talking with, don’t interrupt, don’t think about what you are about to answer, just listen. This also applies when you believe you know the person very well. People change. They have new experiences, and what you heard from them last week can differ from what they want to tell you today. Everyone wants to feel listened to.
What is your take on the topic? Do you think people listen to each other enough? If not, why not? What do you do personally to listen more and really hear what others are saying?
Photo: RobinHiggins / Pixabay.com
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