Are You Listening to Me?
How many times have you found yourself in this situation? It’s the first day of something; perhaps it’s school, college, a job, or anywhere where the people around you are unfamiliar. As is custom to situations like this, you introduce yourself to these unfamiliar people. Maybe you tell them your name, where you’re from, hobbies or activities that interest you, and they do the same. As they talk, your mind snaps to a mindless loop of random thoughts and ideas. Did I lock my car before I got in here? That spaghetti I had for dinner last night was amazing; I love carbs. Do mailmen deliver their own mail, or is there another mailman that delivers their mail? I should call my mom later, so we can talk about what happened on The Bachelor last night. I can’t believe he didn’t send crazy Christy home. Before you know it, the person is done talking, and you have absolutely no recollection of their introduction. Wait, what did they say their name was again? Yeah, we’ve all been there. Active listening, actually being present and attentive when someone is speaking to you, is not my forte, either. Yet as I grow older, I am quickly realizing the value of improving in this skill. When we really start listening to a person, we form connections and an understanding of them, which transitions into the realm of empathic listening.
According to sound expert Julian Treasure, “We are losing our listening.” In fact, sixty percent of our communication time is spent listening, but we only retain about twenty-five percent of what we hear (Treasure). Twenty-five percent! This means that in an hour-long lecture, a student misses fifteen minutes of information that might be vital to know for an upcoming exam. In two hours of conference meetings, an employee misses half an hour of instruction from his or her boss. Most importantly, we miss twenty-five percent of a friend entrusting us to listen to his or her anxiety issues. Twenty-five percent of a younger sister seeking our help over boy troubles. Twenty-five percent of a coworker needing a shoulder to lean on. And with this missing twenty-five percent, we miss the opportunity to connect and empathize with those who need someone to listen. The world is a noisy, stimulating place, so we feel the need to tune everything out (Treasure). But when we desensitize ourselves to these stimuli, we fail to acknowledge the quiet and understated. We fail to consciously listen.
Part of the reason we’re so closed off as humans, at least in my case, is because we don’t expect anyone to listen to what we have to say. Why bother pouring my heart and soul in front of someone if I know they won’t remember anything after I’m done? It’s best to keep everything bottled up, right? Therein lies the problem. When we think like this, we close ourselves off, and when a majority of the population thinks like this, empathy and connectivity are ultimately broken. The solution: put down the phones and computers, turn off the TV, look someone in the eye when they are talking to you and just listen! No daydreaming, no judgments, no thoughts about what to say next. To make it easier and ensure you understand what the person is trying to say, you can summarize and paraphrase his or her words, and ask questions for clarification. Don’t feel the need to fill silences; they give both the talker and the receiver a chance to reflect (Ohlin). You’ll be surprised of the positive impact these simple tricks offer to both parties. The need for connectivity, to be understood by another human being, is a fundamental concept for human beings, and positive social interactions increase our subjective well-being and provide life-long fulfillment and happiness (Ohlin). Empathic listening is a vital tool towards achieving these life goals.
Like most important ambitions in life, developing empathic listening skills will not be easy but will be worth it. In college, lectures go on for almost two hours, and yes, my mind tends to wander on the mindless loop of random, insignificant thoughts. I’m guilty of forgetting someone’s name right after they introduce themselves. When people come to me to talk about their problems, I constantly think about how I am going to respond and press my opinion on them. However, as I get older and ultimately wiser, I realize that what those people really want isn’t advice; it’s understanding. It’s empathy. They don’t want a solution; they want a personal connection. I’m becoming more aware of this fact and starting to focus on the person’s words and to feel the emotions behind those words rather than listen to my internal mantra. With so many distractions, this feat turns arduous at times, but my connections with my friends, soccer teammates, classmates, and family grow stronger every day because they know I don’t just hear them, I listen. When I listen, they know I care. And that’s all any human being ever wants: someone to listen, someone to care.
Ohlin, Birgit. “Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation.” Positive Psychology Program, 21 July 2016, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/active-listening/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.
Treasure, Julian. “5 Ways to Listen Better.” TEDGlobal, July 2011, Edinburgh, Scotland. Conference Presentation.