I was talking to a friend the other day about a problem I was having. I finished pouring my heart out to him only for him to respond aloofly with, “Yeah, well, life is just crazy, I guess.”
And then he went on to talk about his thing.
I’m finding that I’ve been having more interactions like this lately. Although I could attribute these experiences to some boring storytelling on my part, I think there’s something bigger at play: we’re not great listeners anymore.
That camp of bad listeners includes me– just this week, I could barely give my full attention to Corinne getting dismissed on The Bachelor (competing form of entertainment: a crossword on my iPhone). But after the unsatisfying conversation with my friend, I started paying more attention my own listening habits. The verdict: I was super annoying to have a conversation with, too. I glanced computer screens, responded to e-mails, and planned my own responses all while others were talking. Here I was irritated with other people for not fully listening to me, but I was multitasking-while-not-listening myself. (I know my mom is reading this and raising a counter-point that I call her while running errands all of the time. That is a separate category of conversation! I maintain it is still OK to run errands while on the phone.)
The problem with being a multitasking listener goes beyond the fact that it’s annoying. Every time we glance at our phone, try to answer a quick e-mail, or rehearse our own story while someone else is talking is a totally blown chance to make a real connection. We’ve thrown away the opportunity to give someone the gift of our full attention.
This problem goes beyond missed connections– it’s also a squandered leadership opportunity. Think about some of the best leaders you’ve worked with–most of them probably did a great job of making you feel heard and understanding your problems. They probably didn’t spend a lot of time checking their phone while you were talking. And they probably didn’t immediately jump into their thing the minute you were finished making a point.
That’s because true listening indicates that you are strong enough to put your own agenda, thoughts, problems, and ideas on hold to give someone else the stage. Active listening is the epitome of being a servant leader— and it’s something that we’re all going to struggle doing as long as smartphones are around.
I’m not great at active listening at all, but I have started to close my laptop while others are talking, and I have made a conscious effort to put my phone out of sight during conversations with other people. And just the other day, one of my coworkers pulled me aside and thanked me for really listening to her– more proof that the minute we become more present, others notice almost immediately.