Could You Say That Again? Building a Case for Active Listening

The platforms that connect us are very good at amplifying voice but aren’t very good at allowing us to practice our active listening skills.

Future of Work

Technology has had a tremendous impact on the way we have conversations with one another. The proliferation of social media platforms and near ubiquitous access to the Internet in the developed world, has allowed for a single voice to be amplified with the greatest of ease. Thanks to these technologies, a lone voice in one corner of the world can ripple across the globe in the time it takes to hit ‘Retweet’.

The platforms that connect us are very good at amplifying voices but aren’t very good at letting us actively listen to what is being said. Messages are constrained to word counts or time intervals and in many cases, support visuals, rather than text or sound, best. In addition, time and space are no longer constraints to when messages can be sent or received. Often, time lags between speakers in no way mimics a real-time conversation and screens mask vital body language cues. Also, we’re busier and moving faster than ever. Between a jam-packed schedule and tech that encourages clipped comms, it seems that it’s become easier to talk, but much more difficult to listen. This is concerning to say the least because effective communication and interaction isn’t just about speaking; it’s about listening too. For every person holding the mic, you need an audience willing to listen.

Broken down into its simplest parts, a message has two components – the content and the emotion; let’s be clear, there is a real difference between those two parts. It’s the difference between knowing what someone is saying and understanding what they mean. Done right, listening should be a full-body, active experience.

First named by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard E. Farson in the late 50s, the purpose of active listening is about tuning into three things:

1) Total meaning. What is this person really trying to tell me?

2) Emotions/feelings. How does this person see the situation? What does it mean to them?

3) All other cues. What other information am I gathering from this person’s body language, tone, inflection, hesitation etc that tells me how they feel?

What do you notice about the above questions? The questions are all serving to guide the listener to deeply connect with the speaker and see the world from their perspective. Active listening is crucial because it’s the cornerstone to empathy. The speed and ease with which we can amplify our voice has tremendous advantages, but over the long-term it can have, and seems to be having, an unintended effect on how we empathise with others.

Sara Konrath at Michigan University shows that young people are becoming less empathic than ever; American College students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives. Some 87% of Millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone. A Gallup poll shows that families eat together less and less, while 51% of teens would rather communicate digitally than in person (even with friends). In a world of growing complexity that calls for increasing cooperation across the world, the last thing we want to be fostering is an empathy deficit.

Every single study on the future of work from NESTA to the World Economic Forum, the OECD and the UK Government have all concluded that skills like collaboration, people management, social perceptiveness and coordination will be of utmost importance in the 2030 job market. There is no getting away from it, despite the increasing prevalence of machines in society, and strong focus on digital literacy skills, if you don’t have the necessary interpersonal skills that will allow you to effectively communicate and interact with people – both individuals and groups – it’s unlikely that the future labour market will be welcoming you with open arms.

Clinical and research evidence shows that active listening has real power to transform behaviour and attitude. Not only does it bring about changes in attitude to how people think about themselves, but it also can change the attitude a person has towards others. People who feel that they’ve been listened to become more emotionally mature, more open to experiences, less defensive, engage in more democratic behaviour and are less authoritarian towards others. Group members become less argumentative and are more likely to incorporate other points of view. We need more of this. A lot more of this.

One of the most impactful videos I’ve ever watched was an interview with Amaryllis Fox, a former CIA Clandestine Service officer. It’s a three minute testimony to why we should be listening more. I encourage you to watch it. I’ve watched it a number of times now and for me it ultimately comes down to this. Perhaps the reason we’re all talking, talking, talking isn’t because we have that much to say, but rather, because we are desperate to be heard.

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