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We Must Stop Distracted Listening

In this article, I hope to spark some insights about what makes successful and effective conversations using your own past experience. I’ll help you recognize the important role that attentive listening plays in those conversations and the relationships we have with those people and why distracted listening is one of the biggest obstacles to trust and meaningful connections.

We are all living in a world full of distractions, which makes us all highly susceptible to the lure and appeal of distracted listening. My goal is that more of our important conversations also be effective and satisfying ones—the kind that are more likely to produce the outcomes we seek!

What makes for a great conversation?

Here’s the beginning of an activity that I use to kick off some of my communication and leadership skills workshops around the country. It will help you gain some insights about what you find satisfying about great conversations, so you can begin to proactively create this experience in your future conversations.

Think about a specific conversation after which you walked away feeling very satisfied. You felt it was a great conversation.

Now try to deconstruct it:

• What about that conversation made it so satisfying? 
• What was the flow like? 
• What was the environment like? 
• How did the person act? 
• What did they say and do? 
• What did you say and do? 
• What was not said or done?

Something about that conversation made it different or exemplary as compared to other conversations, because you thought about it when I asked you to think about a specific conversation that you felt very satisfied about. 

The goal here is to produce insight about what actually feels satisfying on the receiving end of a great conversation. This insight provides you with tangible, actionable ideas for what to do proactively to provide your conversation partner with the same kind of experience.

What about the other person?

Inevitably, when my workshop learners do this exercise, they start telling me they are concerned about how the other person will behave in this conversation. “It takes two to make it a great conversation, right?”

Stories start to come out about someone—a boss, co-worker, staff member, or even a client—who has shown poor conversation skills in the past. In fact, the number of stories I hear about people’s bosses who have less than helpful conversation skills is actually pretty staggering. That’s sad. I’m on a mission to change this reality.

The stories are usually about how the other person is looking down at their phone or looking at their computer or just generally not very attentive. They feel like they’re not really connected. They seem distracted and open to interruptions. 

You’ve been there, right? Me, too.

It feels bad to be on the receiving end of distracted listening. We worry that 

• the other person is missing half of what we’re saying
• we’ll have to repeat ourselves
• the whole conversation will be nothing more than exercise in futility
• we aren’t interesting or worth enough of this person’s attention.

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This can have a negative effect on the conversation by setting into motion a cycle of negative emotional reactions.

Neuroscience and cognitive science have shown us that we have a very strong hard-wired need to feel a social connection to feel safe. Our brain is constantly scanning to make sure that we are connected in a trusting and meaningful way to the people in our close circle. In fact, our brain is constantly scanning for what it perceives as threats to that sense of connection. Science now shows that social threat is perceived in the same place and intensity as physical threat by our brain.

So as soon as our brain perceives that our conversation partner is not paying full attention and is potentially disconnected from us, our brain perceives it as a threat. It very quickly goes into threat response mode and reacts with fight, flight or freeze.

Distracted listening is bad for conversations and for relationships

With a distracted listener, that conversation we’re having is now no longer very effective. It causes loss of trust and our brain subconsciously move into a very narrow-thinking, pessimistic, and noncreative mode. And this effect is not only bad for this conversation, it’s bad for the relationship. 

When someone is listening to us in a distracted way, it is a huge missed opportunity for that person to connect with us in a meaningful way. When we listen in a distracted way, we miss the opportunity to strengthen that relationship. 

We’re opening ourselves to the risk of creating defensiveness, discontent, disinterest, discouragement, disengagement, dissonance. (I could keep coming up with more words that start with “dis,” but you get the picture.) 

It isn’t the way that we would like to be in our important relationships, is it? 

Let’s stop distracted listening for good

How does it feel when someone gives us their full attention when they’re listening to us? When they give us that sense that they are completely attuned to what we’re saying? 

Remember the exercise you did earlier, where you recalled a satisfying conversation? I’m pretty sure that your conversation partner in that conversation listened to you in this kind of way. How did it make you feel? 

It’s a reassuring feeling to have someone listen to us in a focused, attuned way. 

So when we listen, it’s important that we don’t just listen with our hearing apparatus, but also give our full attention and demonstrate this attentiveness both visually and vocally. 

Visual listening cues include eye contact, open and appropriate facial expressions, relaxed open shoulders, and open (uncrossed) arms and legs. Vocal listening cues include nonverbal sounds like “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” or verbal sounds like “I see” and “Wow!”  These cues help your conversation partner feel like they’re having a great conversation with you.
 
The bottom line is that every conversation is a chance to build or strengthen a relationship. But the flipside of that coin is also true. Every conversation also gives us the opportunity to damage a relationship and to become disconnected from people who are important to us.
© 2016 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Halelly Azulay is an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in leadership, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. She is the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. Her books, workshops and retreats build on her 20+ years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.

Halelly is the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company she founded in 2006 to develop leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching, and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.

Halelly is a sought after speaker at conferences and meetings and is a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. She was described as a “ Leadership Development Guru” by TD Magazine. Halelly blogs at www.talentgrow.com/blog, publishes a leadership podcast at www.talentgrow.com/podcast, and has a popular free weekly subscription newsletter – sign up at www.tinyurl.com/talentgrow.
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