The fact that we’re ‘not talking’ doesn’t mean we’re listening. When someone’s speaking, we can be preoccupied with our to-do list, mull on better ways to spend our time, or compose our weekly shopping list. While we may be physically present, we’re mentally in another universe. Instead of having a conversation, we have a nonversation.
When this happens, we’re in good company. A study by Harvard University psychologists concluded that we spend 46.9 per cent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. While this is a cognitive achievement in itself, it consumes mental energy and has other costs too: when our mind is wandering we are less happy, our relationships are shallower and people around us don’t feel heard.
Even when we’re participating in a conversation, our listening can be very shallow. This is because we’re preoccupied with assessing the validity of what the other person’s saying, formulating our responses and preparing to speak. Social activist William Stringfellow summed up the scale of the listening challenge when he said:
‘Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered.’
The truth is that our own mental dialogue is the greatest obstacle to being able to listen. Learning to be present requires the same dedication and practice you’d devote to your body in a gym. The good news is that you don’t need to pay a membership fee to listen, and you can practice it in every conversation. And if you forget to focus on it, the next conversation is always round the corner. Even a 10% or 20% improvement in being present will improve your productivity and your sense of connection with people.
Here are two things you can practice in every interaction:
- When you begin a conversation, try imagining that you’re turning off a switch that relates to the last task – or the next one – and imagine turning on a switch that relates to the conversation you’re in. Sports professionals use the same mental prompt to remind them to stay in the present moment. At the end of the interaction, you need to remember to switch off again, and switch your attention on for whatever you’re doing next. This process, which continues throughout your day, will strengthen your attention.
- As you become more present, you’ll become acutely aware of the way your thoughts interrupt your attention. The best you can aim for is to keep noticing when your focus drifts away and to bring it back to the conversation you’re in. This is a conscious choice, and becomes easier each time you exercise it.
As your levels of distraction reduce, your effectiveness and sense of engagement will increase in inverse proportion. If you take on these practices for 21 days, you’ll start to develop new neural pathways, allowing mindless nonversations to become mindful conversations.
Rob Kendall has worked with over 70 organisations, including the 2012 London Olympics, Virgin and BBC Worldwide, teaching conversation skills to business leaders, sports professionals, teenagers and many others.
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