This week, I followed a young man as he wandered through Walmart. I wasn’t stalking him exactly; I was just fascinated by the running dialog he was feeding into his cell phone. Without taking a breath he talked non-stop while he gathered everything from cat food to boxer shorts. He never paused to allow his caller a single word.
Truth be told, I’m probably just as bad although I don’t make it a practice of conducting my business in the middle of Walmart. I suspect we have a listening crisis in the 21st century. With so many things competing for our attention, it’s no wonder listening is no longer a priority.
In my home I have a television blaring in one room and Pandora playing in another. Meanwhile, I’m sitting with my laptop determined to complete the great American novel while my dishwasher gurgles and Rebel snores. So when the phone rings I take the call and pretend to have a conversation while finishing a fleeting thought on the book and straining to hear a news report about a shark attack in Sturgis. I hang up the phone and ten minutes later I can’t recall what the conversation was about. Sound familiar?
I figure Americans today need at least four ears and two brains to be able to successfully navigate the noisy waters of life in the 21st century. So I promised myself that I would become a better listener. I would talk less and give my undivided attention to people with whom I come into contact. That lasted for a whole zero and a half days.
Before noon, I cut someone off mid-sentence and started responding to what I thought they were going to say. I’m also very guilty of asking a question, then changing the subject before the friend has a chance to respond. At least that’s what I’m told.
At a spend-the-night party for my high school chums recently, I listened from another room as they conversed around the breakfast room table. They were all talking at once. No one was listening. But hey – we’re growing older and feel compelled to say everything on our minds before it’s too late!
I’m blaming it on education. Listening is the first communication skill we possess and the one we use most frequently…because we haven’t yet learned to talk. Listening is the only skill in which we receive little actual training. We are taught to speak, to read and write, but we are never trained to listen.
We have two ears and one mouth, so doesn’t it follow that we should do more listening and less talking?
I googled how to be a better listener and found a few tips:
1) Lean into the person you are talking to, lock onto their eyes and nod a lot. (I tried it out on an old friend at the Piggly Wiggly today and she looked at me as if I was having a psychotic episode.)
2) When you reach a pause in the conversation, give yourself time to formulate your response. (I tried that too but by the time I had my response perfected she had begun a conversation with someone else.)
3) Put a plug in it and develop an air of mystique. We don’t need to blurt out all the details of our lives to anyone who will listen even if we think our lives are fascinating and worthy of a reality television show. Keep some things to yourself and people will think you are more interesting – if you don’t blab and prove them wrong.
I don’t know what the answer is but I suspect humans of the future will have smaller ears from lack of use and non-stop access to a myriad of electronic toys. The hospitality industry is taking note and hotels and resorts are beginning to offer “digital detox” vacations where you are required to hand over your technology at the door.
I still think we should have a monthly moratorium on all electronics. Think what that could mean: we could sit out on the front porch at dusk and have meaningful uninterrupted conversation with our neighbors or family. We could focus on one thing at a time again, and best of all, we could take long walks in the country and listen to what our souls are trying to tell us.
Emily Braddock Jones is a retired journalist whose book ‘Love, Laughter and Losing My Key: A Boomer’s Survival Guide” will be available next week.