Human beings seem to be born with an urgent and fundamental need to hear and be heard.
Indeed, its importance can be gauged from the fact that our ability to hear is developed in utero, well before birth.
There have been numerous studies over the last few decades showing that babies respond to their mother’s voices. Being soothed by their mothers’ gentle voice helps them deal with stressful situations, decreasing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and raising levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone.
In fact, our relationships with our caregivers during childhood shape and influence our relationships in adult life. If we were given proper attention and were heard as children, we develop secure attachments later on in life, enabling us to shower our loved ones with attention and the gift of being heard.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus famously said: “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”
Yet, despite being aware of its importance, we gradually seem to be losing the art of listening well, or what the psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as “active listening.” The term encompasses much more than passively hearing what is said; it means showing that one cares and is interested in what the other person thinks. By observing nuances and nonverbal cues in conversation, we are able to understand even what is not explicitly expressed.
Today’s fast-paced world, running around chasing heavy schedules, meeting targets, and deadlines, has deprioritised the importance of listening. Modern-day living with smartphones and social media has further accelerated this decline. Everywhere you look, people are buried in their phones, in cafes, restaurants, and even at home at the dinner table.
I experienced this firsthand at meal times. Even if my children were not active on their phones, they kept them within reach, checking off and on, making it clear that being with the family wasn’t engaging enough to keep them happily occupied.
Eventually, I had to enforce a rule of strictly no phones at the dining table! Having brought up two different generations, being the proud mother of a millennial and two Gen Z teenagers raised on a diet of screens, the differences at home are crassly evident. My 26-year-old is still somewhat old-school and picks up the phone to talk to family and friends, engaging in long, personal conversations.
In sharp contrast, I cannot recall my younger two ever picking up the phone to, heaven forbid, “talk” to their friends. In fact, just recently when I asked my daughter if she managed to clarify some confusion she had regarding her homework, she informed me that she was still waiting to hear back from a friend. Baffled by her response of choosing to just wait for her friend to read and respond to her text, I asked her why she didn’t simply call her. It was now her turn to look at me in complete bewilderment and retort with a, “Mama, that’s so weird, no one does that!”
No, these days it’s all about being minimalistic; best to text using just letters: “K, c, u,” accompanied by a few dozen emojis, instead of actually formulating proper sentences.
However, it is unfair to say that only adolescents are lacking in this skill. In the world today, success is invariably measured by our ability to speak. We have been conditioned into believing that our ability to speak is synonymous with good leadership and economic success. As Stephen R. Covey rightly pointed out, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
We expend our energies on talking, making sure we are heard on every platform available, sharing every thought via a status update, tweet, or post. The aim being to reach as large an audience as possible. We connect with hundreds and thousands of people via various social media platforms, but how many of these people do we really “know?” According to evolutionary psychologist Robert Dunbar, we have a cognitive limit of only up to 150 people we can engage with meaningfully on a social platform. Beyond that number, connections are really only superficial.
Increasingly, people now turn to their phones to destress or take a break from work, so much so that it is turning into a serious addiction: cell phone addiction statistics found that over 70 percent of smartphone users sleep with their phone within immediate reach, instinctively picking them up first thing after they wake up and multiple times during the course of the day to scroll through messages, get news updates, catch up on social media, play games, watch videos, listen to podcasts and music, shop, and the list goes on.
We seem to be powerless against this compulsive need to tap, swipe, and scroll, which has spiralled out of control, taking over us completely. It serves as a distraction, which doesn’t allow us to pay attention and listen to what is going on around us.
How to become a better listener
People have been quick to list the numerous ways 2020 and the global pandemic has wreaked havoc in our lives, but we also need to focus on the silver linings, a major one being how it has served as a wake-up call for many, jolting them out of their complacency.
People are now beginning to take the time to focus on relationships that really matter, giving them the attention that they truly deserve. The aim of writing this article is to encourage reflection and provide some guidance on how to improve your listening skills.
These simple tools will hopefully help.
The first crucial step is the realisation that things have gotten totally out of hand and something needs to change. We cannot continue to go down this bottomless spiral, being sucked in further and further into the hypnotising world of Instagram feeds, snapchats, and TikTok videos. Recognising our addiction is the necessary first step toward helping us conquer it. If we keep living in a fool’s paradise, things will only get progressively worse. Set time limits for mindless scrolling and social media in general, and strictly follow them by putting those screens away once the time is up.
To truly listen, we have to drown out the constant buzz of noise around us and focus on being “present” in the moment. Try starting your day with a quick three to five minute meditation or simply sit in silence. We are so used to living amidst a constant barrage of noise at all times that we have forgotten how to be silent. A few minutes of silence, or at least quiet, every morning will give our ears a chance to reset and be more receptive.
Try to improve your listening by appreciating the mundane sounds around you. If you’re out on a walk, listen to the sound of the gravel under your feet as you walk, the chirping of the birds, or, if by a lake, the soothing splash of the waves. Every morning as I make my breakfast, I consciously listen and relish not just the smell, but the sound of my coffee machine. Doing so helps improve the quality of listening.
Revive the art of conversation:
As mentioned earlier, due to the fast-paced lifestyles, we seem to be short on attention and patience. Don’t communicate via monosyllabic texts; take the time out to be present and show that you care. Pick up that phone and call, or better still, meet up for a quick coffee. It is hard to implement in challenging COVID-19 times, but either way what’s important is more face-to-face interaction, even if only in the form of a Zoom call. Restore that personal connection with the people who are important to you, leave your own agendas behind, and listen wholeheartedly.
We need to be cognisant of the fact that effective communication is a two-way street, requiring a lion’s share of listening, more so than speaking. Not only in relationships with our loved ones, but also in our professional lives, we can only succeed if we listen attentively, instead of trying to take over the narrative.
So, the next time your partner, your child, or colleague wants to have a conversation with you, put away that phone, and make them feel heard and understood—giving them your full undivided attention.