Listening in the Age of Attention Deficit:Part II

| | Personal Leadership

Listening well is hard work.

To be effective you must be both focused and present.  Yet in this age of “attention deficit” it can be quite hard to create the mental space necessary to really listen to another human being.

Part I considered some of the external distractions you might encounter when you are trying to listen and what you could do to minimize their impact.

However, the outside world isn’t the only source of distractions.  Our internal world brings a whole other set of potential distractions to the equation. 

These internal distractions are perhaps the most challenging of all.  Their source can be your physical and/or emotional state, your beliefs and attitudes, as well as your commitments and concerns.

Which leads me to this week’s listening challenge…

Melissa Whittle (@mwhittle73 on twitter) offered the following challenge via twitter.  It goes right to the heart of our internal distractions:

Silencing internal dialogue and being fully present.

While someone is speaking you aren’t just listening to them.  You are also listening to the conversation going on in your own mind.  It’s a bit like that image above, except on one line the speaker is talking and on the other it’s the little voice in your head that is doing the talking.  It is impossible to listen to both at the same time.

Unfortunately the harder you try to stop the internal chatter, the more boisterous it tends to get. So instead of trying to stop the internal dialogue, I suggest you try one of more of these strategies:

1.  Know the purpose of the conversation ahead of time.  Why are you in this conversation to begin with?  If you don’t know find out.  If there is a good reason for you to be listening, your mind will be more likely to let the speaker take center stage.  If not, then the issue is something other than your ability to listen.

2.  Take on a practice of occasionally “repeating” back what you heard.  It doesn’t have to be verbatim.  Say something like, “are you saying _____?” or “let me make sure I understand what you have said so far…”

If you know you are going to have to demonstrate you were actually listening, your mind will be more likely to let you.  After all, your mind is typically trying to protect you, so it really wouldn’t want to make you look bad!  The best part is this practice usually results in the speaker experiencing being heard.

3.  Empty your mind by writing down all the thoughts running through your head just before the conversation starts.  It could be a worry, a fear, an idea, something you forgot to do, someone you forgot to call, etc.  If something comes up while you are in the conversation, write it down if you can so it doesn’t get in the way.  This way you won’t worry about forgetting something so you really can be present.  The list will be there when you are done.

4.  Engage the speaker by asking a question.  This is a very effective way to direct the speaker to address what matters to you.  Besides, a conversation can be much easier to stay present for than a presentation.

5.  When you notice that “little voice” chattering away in your mind, simply choose to shift your attention back to the speaker.  By that I don’t mean try to get it to stop.  That internal dialogue is trying to drag you into its conversation so they key is to not think about what it is saying or why.  Just notice it and let it be.  When you consciously choose to shift your attention back to the speaker, it will fade into the background naturally.

What about you?  Is staying present and silencing the internal dialogue a challenge for you?  What strategies do you use that have worked for you?

Stay tuned for more “listening challenges” in this series on Listening in the Age of Attention Deficit.


Enter A Comment

Jon Mertz   |   27 June 2012   |   Reply

Wonderful points, Susan! One thing I learned awhile back was to ask the following after listening to someone – “What I am hearing you say is _______________.” It is a different slant on what you state, but it sets up an opportunity to ensure our filters are hearing the message right and also show that we are engaged through listening intently and with the objective to really understand.

The 5 points you outline are all very helpful, especially in clearing our minds prior to meetings and other important conversations. Thanks! Jon

Susan Mazza   |   28 June 2012   |   Reply

Great add to how to preface giving back what you heard someone say…“What I am hearing you say is _______________.” Thanks Jon!

Melissa Whittle   |   28 June 2012   |   Reply

Susan —
Great article! I found this point especially helpful:

“5. When you notice that “little voice” chattering away in your mind, simply choose to shift your attention back to the speaker. ”

This is an excellent way to become a better listener. This is same technique we use while meditating and it also applies so well to working on our listening skills. Very well put!

I also loved #3. Writing things down so you don’t have to worry about them is a great strategy when you know you are going to be having a conversation with someone and you want to be prepared to listen closely.

Susan Mazza   |   01 July 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment and for inspiring this post. Glad you found it helpful.

Yes, #5 is also a practice in meditation. Thanks for pointing that out. There seems to continue to be a prevalent belief that we don’t have time to “do” nothing these days. Except listening to all that internal chatter is perhaps the biggest waste of time and attention of all.

Marguerite Granat   |   01 July 2012   |   Reply

Susan, this is a great post. I love all your points and like the idea of writing down your thoughts that are concerning you prior to the conversation. Also, your suggestion of observing the thoughts rather than fight them is an effective way to allow them to be there without them taking over your full attention. Bravo! Well said.

Marguerite @MGRecruiter on Twitter

Susan Mazza   |   02 July 2012   |   Reply

Thank you Marguerite. Glad these ideas were helpful.