We don’t listen. Really, we don’t. Listening requires us to be fully present, and if there is one thing that seems to have become increasingly difficult to do, it’s to be fully present, and therefore to fully listen. In her book Alone Together, researcher and psychologist Sherry Turkle shares her findings that children are complaining more about parents not listening to them than they have ever done. The increased pressures of life appear to have shortened our attention spans significantly, reducing our ability to focus on just one thing at a time. If someone who is speaking to us doesn’t get straight to the point we lose interest and pull out our phone ‘just to check’; we check our devices for social media updates or emails if the film we’re watching has a lull in it, and we text while we’re giving our child instructions on their schedule, all the while convincing ourselves that we are really good at multitasking, when what we are actually getting good at, is doing nothing very well.
While we have gained convenience and an ease of connecting that we couldn’t even dream of a generation ago, we seem to be losing the ability for being fully present with someone, for giving all our attention to listening and understanding so that the person feels heard and felt. The erosion of this ability is taking its toll on all relationships, but especially our relationships with our children.
The breakdown of listening as an ability or skill is also evident inside our own minds where we are ‘multitasking’ while supposedly listening to someone. Although we hear what is being said, we are simultaneously assessing the part that resonated most, even judging it, and framing our own reply while a multitude of other thoughts that have nothing at all to do with the conversation are running rampant in our head; what we’re having for dinner, the traffic report, the shopping list we forgot, the missed phone call and all the emails we have to write as soon as we can get back to our device. I certainly cannot listen successfully in this way, nor can anyone else I have ever met, yet we all continue to attempt to listen and multitask simultaneously as if it were actually possible, then wonder why we have so many misunderstandings and challenges in our communications and capacity to understand each other.
To truly listen requires attention, willingness to place our own issues aside, and respect. It requires that we give the speaker (even if she is just a toddler) our full and focused attentiveness, that we are willing to untether ourselves from any agenda we might have while we listen, and that we respect the speaker enough to consider his or her expressions seriously. Unfortunately, because this doesn’t happen much today, we experience and witness endless frustrations, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, disagreements, arguments and conflicts in every area of life on an extraordinary, and I would posit unmatched, level. In families, corporations, organisations, groups, and relationships of every kind, the failure to listen well is rampant and regrettably also forms the basis of assumptions that underlie many important decisions that are made on all levels of society –assumptions that were made because we didn’t take the time, nor did we have the focus, to listen well.
Learning to listen well and be fully present is a critical skill, and one that we need to give a lot more priority to developing, more now than ever. Learning to master our own emotions is key. The more we are masters of our own emotional state –in other words, the better we can manage our own feelings and stress– the better equipped we are to listen and understand others, especially our children well. It is a significant gain that results from developing the self-awareness and capacity for self-management that is emotional intelligence, and that Applied Emotional Mastery™ facilitates.