How many times have you been in conversations with friends, family members and loved ones and completely tuned out to what they are saying? Though this happens to everyone from time to time, it’s important for each of us to think about how often this occurs in our daily lives. How much attention do we give to the people who we consider important to us?
According to research cited by Wright State University, while most people believe they are good listeners who don’t need to improve their listening skills, the average person listens at only about 25 percent efficiency. The article goes on to state, “Research has found that by listening effectively, you will get more information from the people you manage, you will increase others’ trust in you, you will reduce conflict, you will better understand how to motivate others, and you will inspire a higher level of commitment in the people you manage.”
So why aren’t we better listeners? For one thing, as a society we may be growing more narcissistic. A recent University of California, Los Angeles study showed that the language we use (our popular word choices) may reflect that we are a more self-centered culture. A 2007 study further found that there is a rise in self-centeredness and narcissism among college students. If we, as a culture, are becoming more self-centered, how can we, as individuals, work to become more caring and compassionate communicators?
First, we can change our attitude toward conversation. As Stephen R. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” A dialogue is an opportunity to learn, to see things from a new perspective, to open your eyes to new information and possibilities. Yet, too often we engage in conversation as if it’s a debate. We speak to hear our own voices – our own preexisting opinions articulately announced. In doing so, we tend to space out when spoken to. We wait, perhaps even patiently or politely, for the other person to finish, so we can say something we feel is of value.
It’s important not to take an imperialistic attitude toward our opinions. We should adopt the belief that what another person has to teach us can be just as valuable and worthwhile as what we have to say to them, often more so. Even when this doesn’t prove to be the case, there is little damage done. We lose a lot more in filtering out the many wise and meaningful words of friends and colleagues than we do listening to a few opinions that we don’t wind up finding of particular significance.
Playwright Wilson Mizner said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he knows something.” Listening doesn’t just expand our knowledge on an intellectual level; it enables us to have a more personal, in-depth understanding of our closest friends. Relationships are truly enriched by an equal back-and-forth in communication. When these dynamics become more one-sided, we tend to lose interest and create distance in our friendships. There is less trust established, less honesty exchanged.
We can all improve our listening skills. We can start by being open to the fact that maybe we aren’t as good a listener as we once thought. Do we tend to focus too much on ourselves – both in positive and negative ways? Do we get distracted by an inner coach, looking over our shoulder and commenting on our interactions, rather than living in the moment and really engaging in what’s being said? As we start to explore this issue, we are likely to gain a lot of insight into what distracts us from listening to those around us. As we learn to quiet that inner voice in our minds, we can start to open ourselves up to others, becoming better listeners, thinkers, lovers and friends.