How to listen empathetically. Challenge #3 — distractions!
(The last article of the four part series)
The last couple of articles looked at the challenges of selective listening and not listening to non-verbal cues. In this article, we will look at the last challenge to listening- distractions.
The first two challenges, selective listening and our non-verbal language, are subtle and subconscious, they exit without our knowledge, orchestrating and shaping our listening. We need to really work hard to become aware of them and then try to prolong the window of empathetic listening for that few seconds longer, until the challenges creep back in.
Unlike these, distractions are something that we are aware most of the time and hence probably easier to address.
Distractions are of two kinds-
- Distractions that happen because of our state of being. Our physical, mental and emotional state affects the quality of our conversations. These in fact precede conversations and orchestrate the way we listen.
For instance, I remember entering some meetings thinking about an argument with my wife or daughter; replaying it in my mind and thinking of what could have been done differently; or the traffic that made me arrive late for a pitch in a tensed and stressed manner. There have also been instances where I had not slept well or had skipped breakfast.
On all these occasions, my listening suffered; I was edgy, angered easily and ended up closing the meeting in a hurry.
The second kind of distraction is the thought expeditions.
A Harvard Business Review article by Ralph Nichols who is known as the ‘father of listening’ talks about the way our brain processes speech and thought. According to him, we can speak about 125 words a minute while the brain can process over 400 words. This means that when we listen, we ask our brain to receive words at an extremely slow pace compared with its capabilities.
When we listen, therefore, we continue thinking at a high speed while the spoken words arrive at a low speed. It is like the shot of Neo in the movie Matrix, seeing the bullets come at him very slowly or the way Flash ( DC comic superhero with the capability to be really fast) or Quicksilver of Marvell having a similar capability, seeing things hurtling at them as coming very slowly.
In the act of listening, the differential between thinking and speaking rate means that our brain works with hundreds of words in addition to those that we hear, assembling thoughts other than those spoken to us. To phrase it another way, we can listen and still have some spare time for thinking.
During a conversation, as our brain waits for the words to come, it starts assembling thoughts of its own in-between the spoken sentences. This could either be triggered by what the speaker had said or something that we want to tell him. There is plenty of time for the brain to do this and still manage to catch up with the topic.
However as the conversation progresses, there may be instances where the time spent on these thought expeditions stretches. And that’s when things start going south. What can potentially happen is, we may miss a larger chunk of what the other person has spoken. This now sets us scampering in different directions — trying to make sense of what is being said, while simultaneously running in the reverse to try and remember what the person had said a few moments back to make sense of what he/ she is saying now. And we stop listening.
The other fallout of this differential processing of the brain is that one often starts second guessing where the other person is heading with their argument and start to form a point of view instead of staying with the conversation.
Now, like I mentioned before, distraction is a challenge that we can become aware of quickly and hence it becomes more easier to address. Here are a some of the practises that i follow.
Techniques to address the ‘state of being’ distraction
We may have used these techniques some time or the other but often tend to underestimate their effectiveness. But these are the same techniques that are used very effectively by stage performers and athletes.
Paying attention to our state of being: Before getting into a meeting or a conversation, it is always a good practice to see how we are feeling physically and mentally. Am I sleepy? Am I hungry? Am I pre-occupied?
Once aware, it is easy to take appropriate and very often simple actions like grabbing a snack before going into a meeting or changing the area of the meeting if the environment is not conducive.
In the case we are preoccupied, it is better to share the incident that’s at the back of our mind (if it can be shared); once we do this, it is out of the system for that moment and we are able to focus better. If we still feel that we are distracted, it is good to postpone the conversation rather than go ahead. It may not sound practical, but it has always worked for us.
Decompressing: Another effective way that has worked for me, is to decompress before I get into a conversation. I tend to do one of these three things-
Deep breathing or
Blanking out — where I just stare into the distance without reacting to anything or
Engaging myself by doing some other activity
Blanking out and engaging yourself in another activity are specifically applicable to a professional context.
Techniques to address the ‘state of being’ distraction
The simplest and the most effective is note taking and asking questions.
Now this may seem a bit too much in an informal setting or a personal conversation; it may also appear to hinder our listening. This could be true, but I feel that it helps in the beginning. Once we are able to catch ourselves going on our thought expeditions, then it may not be required.
In a professional setting, this helps in any case as it is an act of respect and assists you to refer back to the conversation.
The note taking and questioning also help you gently nudge the other person back to the point or remind them of what they were saying, in case they veer off topic.
As a closing, I feel that listening is a never ending process and the better you get at it, you realize how much more there is to it. It was something that we would have been born with many moons ago, but today, we need to learn and get skilled in it.
Ideally, it needs to be inculcated from childhood itself, at home, at school. We are taught how to speak, how to read, how to write but never on how to listen. As children, for most of us, listening was more to do with taking orders or obeying a command of the elders rather than really listen.
Imagine a world where people actually listen to each other in their personal and professional spaces. Where schools teach listening skills, government and institutions really listen to its citizenry, political opponents hear each other out! It would definitely be a better and a more benign world.
This post is a part of the series on ‘How to listen empathetically’. Read the rest of the articles in the series here:
Also, watch our webinar on ‘The power of listening in humanising institutions’ here: