The Impatient Listener

In Deep Conversation Pam O'Connell
“In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

There’s a reason attention and appreciation are so highly valued — give them to someone, genuinely, and they’ll do almost anything for you — It’s a scarce resource.

While we only have so much attention to go around, we tend to be stingy with it. We spend (on average) 58% of our work time working alone (too much of it on e-mail). And we divide the rest among too many people, often several at once, to the point some of us don’t really pay attention to anyone or anything. Instead, we browse incessantly. It’s called ‘paying’ attention because it requires giving. We’re pretty mercenary when it comes to ‘paying’ for things, so most of us tend to give, or pay, only when we think we will get something valuable in return. Some of us aren’t any more generous with attention when we’re away from work.

And we can only appreciate what we pay attention to, so the generosity of our appreciation is constrained by our attention span. My experience has been that men tend to be more appreciative of things that capture their attention — but since their attention is so much harder to capture than most women’s, they end up being stingier with both.

Despite my valiant attempts to become more attentive, I remain an impatient listener. This is in part due to the fact that I am impatient in general. I no longer get angry or stressed when I feel my time is being wasted, but I still tend to get distracted and look for something else to do, to occupy my mind and my senses, when what’s in front of me isn’t terribly interesting to me, or is poorly articulated.

I think we get into this poor-attention habit when we have a lot of meetings, conferences, or presentations to attend. People come to expect a lack of attention at such events — we daydream, doodle, work on something else while half-paying attention, or, if permitted, multi-task overtly with technology. Presenters and speakers then compensate for this lack of attention by speaking more slowly, or repeating themselves, so the bad habit is  reinforced, and even efficient. If you then try to impose ‘flaps closed’ rules and brand multi-tasking as rude, you’d better be respectful of people’s attention, or you’ll just come across as arrogant, and as a time-waster.

That’s why I tend to prefer one-on-one conversations, where the person you are talking with expects your full attention, and therefore it is reasonable for you to expect them to be clear, concise, meaningful, and respectful of your attention. But as we know, it rarely works out that way. If we get impatient, we tend to interrupt, and to start thinking about what we’re going to say next instead of listening. Most of us tend to filter everything we hear through our personal worldview and values, and ignore (not even process) anything that tends not to fit with that worldview, so the result can be almost comical — two people each essentially talking at the other person, and talking to themselves. No attention is being paid at all.

Kids have an interesting way of handling all this. With each other, they are usually pretty patient, perhaps because they don’t yet believe they have all the answers. They’re attentive to a point, but they’re also paying attention to other things going on around them. This is what learning is all about. The law of two feet prevails — they’ll be attentive until they find they’re no longer interested, and then they’ll walk away, no offense intended.

With adults, they try to teach us the important lesson of managing the expectations of conversation and attention in advance. When we call them because we want to talk with (or usually to) them, their answer is usually “What?” This isn’t (often) rudeness. It’s a request for an articulation of the purpose of the conversation, from the view of the adult. They will then figure out (for themselves) what they think the purpose of the conversation is, or should be. They won’t articulate it, because (foolish kids!) they figure that, as adults, we should know what their expectation is, pay attention to it, appreciate it. When we don’t, they fidget, they daydream etc.

Some conversationalists suggest that everyone party to a conversation, meeting, conference or presentation articulate their expectation at the outset. I can appreciate the idea, but I don’t think it works in practice. Often we don’t know what our expectation is until the event is over (or not even then). Sometimes we don’t want to admit what our expectation is, in case it’s embarrassing to us, or the person who hears it and realizes they can’t possibly live up to it. And when both, or all, participants articulate wildly different expectations, what then?

Sometimes it can work, however. I try to say at the outset of every conversation or meeting what I hope to accomplish, what I’m looking for, and what I’m offering in return. It is in a way a contract, and if you’re asking someone to ‘pay’ attention it’s not unreasonable to suggest what you’re giving back, what’s in it for them. And while sometimes this attempt to clarify expectations, outcomes and intentions is ignored (if it’s not consistent with what the other person’s expectations are, chances are they won’t even ‘hear’ it, and even if it is, or they do, you may not get a reciprocal articulation of the other participants’ expectations), sometimes it works brilliantly, and, as long as you deliver what you’ve promised in return, people will marvel at how productive your meetings are.

But that brings us back to the challenge of focusing our attention when the person we’re talking to is hard to understand, repetitive, ignorant, aggressive, long-winded or otherwise distressing. The law of two feet is (alas) usually socially unacceptable between adults. Interrupting, ignoring or hurrying the other person is considered rude. Unless they’re so good looking you don’t care what they’re saying, what do you do?

Of course, it depends. In some cases it makes sense to invest time essentially teaching others (through nods, puzzled looks and other clues) how to make their point more clearly or appreciably. Good communication skills are, after all, acquired through practice. In other cases, when it becomes clear that communication is impossible, it makes sense to politely conclude the conversation and beat a retreat.

The irony is that it takes a fair bit of attention to determine which is the better approach. Attention that, all too often, we are unwilling to invest. We’ve all witnessed the comical, or tragic, results — shouting matches, dangling conversations, disconnected conversations, embarrassing silences, contests of wills, humiliations, bullying, utter misunderstandings.

We can practice being a good listener, and being a good conversationalist, and both will help. In addition, I think the key is willingness to create the space for genuine understanding to occur, to nurture it, to give it a chance, to manage expectations. We all want attention and appreciation, and if we give it, generously, we may be surprised howmuch we get in return.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Category: Conversation
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2 Responses to The Impatient Listener

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Sometimes it can work, however. I try to say at the outset of every conversation or meeting what I hope to accomplish, what I’m looking for, and what I’m offering in return. It is in a way a contract, and if you’re asking someone to ‘pay’ attention it’s not unreasonable to suggest what you’re giving back, what’s in it for themPersonaly, I dislike this approach quite a lot. I recognize it immediately, of course, and it opens up in me the visceral dislike I have for 30 second pitches and elevator statements, a continuous focus on productivity instead of feelings and reflective discourse, etc. No doubt because of that I sabotage the conversation that may ensue. In such cases I also tend to believe that the person with whom I might engage has an overly-important sense of their own time and attention. Paradox, eh ?If people are inarticulate or fumbling with being articulate enough for you, IMO the compassionate and valuable-for-both thing to do is to ask good questions.As David Weinberger has said (and it applies to me) … “my elevator statement is on file with the doorman”.

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