Stop the Multi-Tasking: A Call to Action for Better Listening

When I was in undergrad, I wrote a poem using the literary device of repetition. It remains untitled. I never performed it.

i think in music – lyrics and song.
so much so that i’ve transformed myself
into a freedom hymn
that the slaves used to sing
to h.i.m., the king
in order to transcend
from this world to the next

i think in music – lyrics and song
my heart keeps the bass
that my emotions build on
to form a crazy dope beat
buh-bum, buh-bum, buh-bum

I went on to outline the piece with artists and song titles that personified every step of heartbreak as I lived it. Any emotion or experience I felt would often be accompanied by a song – it’s beat and rhythm or its poetic lyrics.

Nowadays, my brain works more like a not quite ancient, but also not fully updated operating system. Social media has programmed me to think not only in music, but also in random gifs, memes and short videos. I can usually recall the moment I saw one that impacted me on a personal level, but will never again be able to find it in the jungle that is the internet.

And for the record – I’m pretty good at googling and securing obscure things. In fact, it’s a skill that I take pride in.

In the spirit of actually writing and not spending three hours pinpointing a BuzzFeed type video that I once saw – I will describe it for you.

Three people are sitting in a room having a conversation. They are sharing personal stories and memories. Every time one person starts sharing, the next person will stop listening after hearing a trigger word, a word that will remind them of a related story that they have to share. The next person is then repeating the word over and over again in their mind, looking for a moment to jump into the conversation, nervous that they will forget the great story they have to share. They are no longer listening.

This happens enough times in the two and a half minute video that it is satirical. The video was entertaining and insightful. I might have shared it on my Facebook feed. If I did, Facebook will make sure to remind me a few years after the fact in that memory notification section. At the very least, I know I liked it and left some kind of comment about the reality that this video is making a parody of.

Everyone is talking but noone is listening.
An old friend called me this weekend. We text here and there, but it’s not the way it used to be. So I was surprised to see her name pop up on my phone screen. I thought it might be a buttdial, but I decided to pick up and see for myself.

It wasn’t a butt dial.

She thought of me in a situation she was going through and asked me for some advice, woman-to-woman. I talked her through it as best as I could.

She went on to tell me about her current career and how she felt a bit frustrated about its current state. How she was unhappy about the energy and commitment of the people she was both working with and responsible for supervising.

I jumped into Captain Save-A-Planet mode. I felt it happening, but could do nothing to stop it. I gave her unsolicited suggestions about opening up her own business. I told her how every workplace has people with bad attitudes.

I mean – I’ll give myself some credit and say that I also asked follow up questions, but the reality is that I wasn’t that great of a listener. I was too busy thinking about how I would respond – on how my suggestions might make her situation better.

Too focused on analyzing her problems and creating solutions, I didn’t realize that the part of our conversation where she was soliciting advice had already come to an end.

I do this often. I know this about myself. And as most people who are aware of their major characters flaws might tell you, I detest when it is done to me.

So much so, that I now preface certain conversations with my partner like, “Hey – I don’t need you to solve this problem for me. I just need to vent.”

Isn’t it funny how the behaviors and habits that get under our skin like toxic vaccinations are the same ones we are usually guilty of?

As Alanis Morissette would say – Isn’t it ironic?
The average person can only go 17 seconds of listening in a conversation before interrupting or interjecting their own thoughts.

Seventeen seconds.

That is pathetic and it really makes me wonder what that says about the average person.

Maybe that we are dying to be heard. Or perhaps that we have been socialized to be ten times more efficient in thinking and speaking than in listening.

We need to learn how to listen. We need to learn how to take in what others are saying and just sit with it before rushing to give a response or even having to give a response. We need to learn to be more comfortable with sitting in silence because maybe there is more to be learned in the quiet than there is in the noise of pointless, idle small talk.

I need to learn how to listen better. It will make me a better therapist, coworker, friend, family member and partner. I do not have to stop giving advice entirely. I actually think I give some pretty decent advice, but I need to only give it when it is requested and never in a condescending manner.

There are tons of articles and books on active, effective and deep listening. There is a TED talk called “5 Ways to Listen Better” – which I started to play as I wrote this sentence and then realized that if I continued to write as I listened, I wouldn’t be fully listening.

At least I caught myself.

And the idea of publishing this piece without listening to that TED talk is now eating at me from the inside, like bad fried food that you can taste every time you burp. Meanwhile, I had no idea it existed until I googled it two minutes ago.

This is the world that we live in. We are consumed with giving opinions and offering advice.

There are small, practical tips that we can put into place to work towards becoming better listeners. If I were to go through these like a checklist, I wouldn’t fare very well.

::shrugs shoulders:: I’ll keep at it until I get it right because how can I expect something of someone else if I’m not willing to put in the work and do it myself.

Tip 1: Maintain eye contact. Seems simple enough, but it can get complicated when our smart phones, tv shows and checklists are standing in the way.

Tip 2: Don’t listen and do something else at the same time. I take a lot of pride in being a multi-tasker. I’m now realizing that I may be taking a lot of pride in being a half-ass listener. ::sigh::

Tip 3: Listen for feelings. My biggest problem – especially in personal relationships, is that I am often jumping to defend myself or let the other person know how they’re wrong in the way that they are thinking. True listening calls for a desire to understand where the other person is coming from above all else.

Tip 4: Refuse to Interrupt. No … matter … what. Let people finish talking. I’m still not sure where I stand on the whole taking notes while someone is talking thing. I mean I get it. I’ve done it. But I still feel like it’s kind of prickish and you can’t fully be listening if you’re taking notes (See Tip 2.) But hey – it’s better than not letting someone finish what they were saying I guess. Baby steps.

Tip 5: Watch a TED talk. I don’t actually know that this helps, but the aforementioned TED talk sounds good. I’ll probably give it a listen as soon as I’m done writing this. I think the takeaway point here is research how to get better at listening, and anything else you might not be good at, and find what works for you.

There are tons of rousing quotes and meems about not being average – about pushing yourself to be the best version of you. Let’s do more than just repost, like and comment.

Seventeen seconds is mediocre. I want to do better than seventeen seconds.

I won’t time myself with the stopwatch on my phone.

I assume that will count as doing something else at the same time which negates Tip 2. And then I might start thinking about how I’m going to write an essay on how listening for thirty seconds at a time changed my life and then I’ll forget that I was supposed to be listening.

No – I won’t time myself. I won’t use the tips as a checklist to gauge my listening skills like some kind of self-assessment rubric.

I’ll just talk less, quiet my thoughts and listen more.

It is that simple and that complicated.


**this essay was inspired by listening to Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages.

One thought on “Stop the Multi-Tasking: A Call to Action for Better Listening

  1. ~I struggle with managing my thoughts and listening to others. I am always aware of the social norms required during a conversation. But those 17 seconds you mentioned are crucial. Aside from the thoughts being geared towards a memory or relatable comment, there are many other rushes, verbal urges, and word vomits errupting, along with the thoughts. This all starts to pile up while you’re trying to actively listen. At what point does the participant from the conversation also start to drift off into their own memory bank of thoughts, distractors, and questions? This has given me a new conversational goal to set, which is focusing and using your tips to guidance active listening during a naturalistic conversation.~

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