A few weeks ago, I was having drinks with an old friend. Our conversations weaved between fun banter and more serious topics. At one point, I opened up about something that had been bothering me in my relationship. I got choked up because I hadn’t articulated this exact thought to anyone before, and I felt a surge of sadness. When I looked up at my friend, she was glancing past me at another table of people composing a group selfie. Instead of giving me her full attention in this vulnerable moment, she was contemplating whether she should get up and take the photo for them.
That hurt a little. I’m not someone who opens up very often, so when I do, I need to know that someone is really listening. If I sense that someone is drifting, I shut down. It upset me that she was too distracted to perceive the gravity of what I was sharing. I told her to help the people if she wanted to, but that I wasn’t going to keep talking while she split her attention. She heard me, and she tuned back into the conversation.
I get it. I’m easily distracted too. Even though this interaction felt disrespectful in the moment, I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing. Once, when another friend of mine was telling me something important, my phone rang, and instead of turning off the ringer and setting my phone aside, I took the call. And instead of getting off the call quickly, I had a 20-minute conversation. She was understandably angry, and this caused a rift that took hours to smooth over.
These are egregious examples of being a bad listener, because, in both cases, the conversations were steeped in emotion. But there are many more micro-examples of distracted listening that we excuse and adopt as regular practice.
Do you know someone who routinely responds to a text or email while you’re talking, but then apologizes for it? As in, “I know this isn’t polite, but I’m going to do it anyway“. I know more than one person like this.
My version of small-scale lazy listening usually involves visual distractions. I’ll be walking around the neighborhood with my boyfriend, and I’ll interrupt him mid-sentence to point out a new restaurant that’s opened or a pair of exceptionally cute pugs. He knows that I’m easily distracted by visual stimuli. He doesn’t like being interrupted, but he accepts this about me, so I continue to do it. But the fact is, I can and should change this habit. I can be more present in the conversation and save my observations for later.
Our culture encourages fractured attention spans. There are millions of distractions that tempt us at every moment, so it takes real intention and discipline to stay focused on what other people are saying.
Even though it can be hard, being a present listener pays off. It results in more trust and intimacy among the people closest to you. As anyone who’s ever been hurt by a distracted listener knows, you owe others the same respect that you want for yourself.
If you’ve noticed yourself drifting in and out of focus more than you’d like, here are a few tips for being more present:
- Maintain eye contact. I believe that we listen with our eyes almost as much as we do with our ears. When you glance around the room while you’re talking, it conveys that you’re bored and searching for something more interesting. I’m not saying that you have to bore your eyes into someone at every moment, but avoid fixating on visual distractions. The people you’re talking to shouldn’t feel like they have to compete with strangers and passing scenery to hold your attention.
- Put your phone away. Even if you have the good sense not to interrupt conversations with phone calls and text responses, it’s nearly impossible not to look down at an object lighting up with occasional dopamine signals. Every time you sneak glances at your phone, you show the person you’re with that your attention is tenuous and liable to give way at any moment. A recent New York Times article pointed out that the mere presence of a phone on a table or in the periphery of two people’s vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. Unless you’re waiting for a call from Obama, there’s no reason to keep your phone out during intimate conversations.
- Don’t cut people off. This is a hard one, even for a fairly patient, self-proclaimed good listener like myself. Sometimes people will be finishing a thought, and I can’t wait to share a related experience, so I jump in with a reaction before they’ve fully stopped talking. It’s great to be enthusiastic and responsive—that’s the backbone of any good conversation—but you shouldn’t be so enthusiastic that you steamroll the other person. Everyone unpacks their thoughts at different paces, so don’t put pressure on your companion to think at the exact same speed as you. Giving people the space to think and speak without interruption shows that you are truly listening to them and not just waiting for your turn.
- Don’t make the conversation all about you. Being present means that you are giving your full attention to the larger point that someone is trying to make. Of course it can be helpful to share your insights and experiences as they relate to the topic, but if you do this too much, it seems like you’re only listening as a jumping off point to talk about yourself. Show someone that you’re hearing what they’re saying by keeping the focus on them. When the time is right, the conversation will shift back to include both of your perspectives.
- Ask questions. The best way to show someone you’re really listening is to ask them questions that build off of what they’re saying. This shows that you’ve not only heard everything they said, but you want to know more. When I go to parties or big group gatherings, I almost never open up until someone asks me a few questions first. Otherwise, I assume that people don’t really care about what I’m saying, so I shouldn’t bother talking.
Whether you’re a super disciplined phone dismisser or a laser-focused eye contact person, I suspect that we could all tune in a bit more closely to the people in our lives—especially those whose forgiveness we may take for granted.
Do you find yourself getting distracted easily? If so, how do you stay present in conversations? Leave a note below, I’d love to hear from you.
Photo by Björn Bechstein