Let’s begin with an anecdote. I recently overheard a conversation in which Woman One asked Woman Two how she was coping with work. As Woman two explained the woes of her spiralling workload, Woman One’s response was: “Yep, yep, yep” while simultaneously drumming her fingers on the desk, sending an email and booking two weeks in the Caribbean.
OK, so I made up that last bit, but the point is, Woman One definitely wasn’t listening. We’re all guilty of switching off at times but have we become poor listeners? One 2008 study concluded that the average attention span had dwindled to just five minutes, down from twelve minutes ten years earlier, while two separate studies last year found that teachers believe student attention spans have been adversely affected by technology. If you’re reading this with twenty tabs open, your phone flashing up a new message and the office phones ringing, you’ll understand it can be difficult to concentrate on what the person next to you is saying.
Part of the problem is that we’re out of practice. Technology has taken away the necessity to listen because so much of our communication is done over email and social media where we don’t need to listen.
Personally I'm guilty of 'switching off' when the other person is talking about something I have no (or think I have no) interest in.
However, good listening is the cornerstone of communication in relationships, whether personal or professional. It tells the other person you’re interested and that you value them. We relay so much information when we’re speaking, through words and emotions. If we’re switched off, we’re missing out.
So what makes a good listener? You need to focus your attention on the person who’s speaking. Make yourself put down your smartphone, close your inbox, switch off the TV and focus, which is easier said than done. It is easily ignored, but showing someone else you value their time, even if they're discussing something as mundane as the weather, shows you're a good friend.
It’s also possible to train yourself to be more attuned to sound. Practise listening to music with no lyrics. When there are lyrics we tend to make a film in our head of the story in the song, which is practising our visualising, rather than listening abilities. Body language is also crucial; eye contact, turning yourself towards the person speaking, not fiddling with the elastic bands on your desk, all indicate that you’re interested.
I try to maintain eye contact mostly because I'd like to be treated with the same respect and attention I give others.
But what happens when you’re struggling to concentrate because the conversation simply doesn’t interest you? There are two ways you can frame this situation. Firstly, you could frame the conversation around your relationship to the speaker. So it’s your mum and she’s holding forth on Coronation Street; she is your mum, she wants to talk to you and that’s why you should listen. On the other hand, you can think about what you might learn from the other person.
And when someone’s not listening to you? I tend to stop abruptly mid-sentence. That usually brings the other person back to the present.