Are you familiar with the feeling of talking to someone you know isn’t really listening? I imagine it draws strong resemblances to speaking to a robot: it nods, it provides answers, but it’s incapable of really hearing, or caring, about what you have to say. I find myself personally frustrated when, in the middle of a conversation, the person I’m talking to interrupts with a story about him or herself. Sadly, I’ve noticed this general tendency in my own behavior. Afterward, I think to myself: "Am I talking simply to counter with my own experiences, or am I genuinely interested in what this person has to share?"
In a 2014 article written by Harvard Business Prof. James Heskett, several professionals suggest the art of listening is gradually facing extinction. One scholar offers that a generation constantly scrolling through its own Twitter and Instagram feed has inevitably lost interest in engaging with those outside its realm of interests and mutual friends. Society now creates virtual networks based on whom and what it wants to see — so why bother listening to everyone else?
Others experts suggest that humans have struggled with the art of listening throughout history. It’s only more apparent now because the human population is significantly more interactive than it was 30 years ago.
Have you ever wondered why teachers and professors encourage you to lower your hand when another person speaks? The logic is two-fold: first, it’s a sign of respect. But there’s also the fact that when your hand is raised, you’re no longer listening to what your fellow student is saying. Instead, you’re contemplating your own response.
Haskett’s article discusses the Harvard Business School discussion leadership strategy, in which leaders are encouraged not to call on students whose hands have been raised for an extended period of time under the assumption that they have stopped listening to the present conversation and will therefore bring the topic back to what was said several minutes ago.
Whether or not the millennial “Self(ie) generation,” is less capable of listening than older generations, we can all agree that our society has a serious listening deficiency.
I’m bothered by this not only because being ignored and feeling invisible is incredibly frustrating, but also because I don’t want to subconsciously isolate myself from the valuable stories, experiences and ideas of those around me simply because I’m naturally more interested in my own. I don’t just want to share my experiences with someone I know genuinely cares; I want to be the person who genuinely cares.
I’ve recently begun catching myself from zoning out of conversations. I now hold back from liberally inserting personal anecdotes wherever they apply. I do this because I don’t want to live in the comfortable world I subconsciously construct for myself; the one in which I choose the people and news I interact with based on my own background and interests. When people are generous enough to share their personal thoughts and ideas with me, I want to be the kind of person who cares enough to listen and engage with what they have to say.