Digital Detox: The Importance of Mindful Listening

“Uh huh. Yeah, I get it. Mmhm. Uh huh. I see. Sorry, what was it you just said?”

This is the response nobody likes to hear when they’re chatting with someone else. Yet, it happens all the time – between teacher and student, parent and child, you and a friend. More often than not, it’s because the other person is using some sort of digital device that’s taking more than half of the attention away from what’s really supposed to matter at that moment: your conversation. You can’t help but feel disrespected for not being given the attention your thoughts and opinions deserve, but you don’t have the heart to ask the other person to listen. So you just stop talking and wait until the other person notices the uncomfortable silence. He or she looks up, sets down the iPhone or iPod or whatever it is, and says, “Sorry, what was it you just said?” And then you start over.

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There are also other versions of the same scenario. For instance, the person’s eyes may dart between the speaker and the device to make it seem like he or she is listening. Additionally, there have been times when a friend was talking to me, and then she (or he) stopped mid-sentence to send a text. The seconds it took my friend to send that text felt like hours instead. I would just stand there awkwardly, waiting for her to finish and feeling amazed that my friend didn’t even realize she left me hanging with a sentence fragment. Another common scenario occurs when the person says, “Hold on a sec,” before completing the digital task and then returning to the conversation.

Even though the last scenario seems better because the person seemingly takes a step to devote undivided attention to each subject, in a way it’s worse because the digital device very clearly comes before the speaker. We’ve come to expect it, too, and in doing so, we give our digital devices more power than they should ever have. We allow ourselves to become a high second priority, and when we’re the ones with the digital devices in our hands (admit it, we’re all guilty of this), we are silently telling others that they’re not as important.

Ultimately, there’s a significant difference between hearing and listening. When you’re hearing someone, your ears are detecting the sound waves coming from a person’s lips – but your brain isn’t necessarily processing the meaning behind that noise. When you’re listening to someone, you’re actively concentrating on what the person is saying without getting distracted by irrelevant stimuli in the environment (a process known as selective attention). Obviously, the latter takes more energy than the simple act of hearing, but it’s more important because mindful listening allows you to be fully aware of what you’ve heard and understand the content.

Hearing only, on the other hand, makes it easier for us to do many things at once but becomes unproductive as a result. These kinds of one-ear-in-one-ear-out tendencies are barriers to effective communication and sever relationship-building. Multi-tasking is so common (and easy) today that we think it’s efficient to eat, talk and text all at the same time – even though clearly it isn’t. We’ve become trained to divide our attention among several different tasks, and while it may work (or not) when you’ve got several tabs up on your computer, it’s not acceptable to do so when you’re supposed to be talking to a person face-to-face.

Below, I share three ways to become better at mindful listening as well as three ways to deal with other people who may not be mindful listeners.

Be a Mindful Listener

1) Avoid multi-tasking. Practice this not just during conversations, but all the time. Read without listening to music, cook without talking on the phone and, yes, do homework without checking email every five seconds. It may be difficult especially if you’re used to multi-tasking, but the more you practice focusing on one thing at a time, the more disciplined you become – and this will become more apparent when friends realize you’re actually listening to what they’re saying for once. Old habits die hard, but they still eventually die.

2) Keep eye contact and ask questions. Don’t just sit there and stay silent while your friend talks. Though it’s important to give another person time and space to share their thoughts, let them know you’re actually processing what they’re saying by asking them to elaborate on certain points. Then, when it’s your turn to talk, take a second or two to regurgitate what they said (this will also help you retain the information) and then provide your own insight. Also, try not to look elsewhere besides the person’s face – it can be just as annoying as if you were on your phone.

3) Know that listening isn’t a passive act. Although listening is a quiet activity externally, your mind is actually working hard to comprehend what others are saying and combining that knowledge with what you already know. Your behavior and responses also affect the person who is talking – their tone, their facial expressions, even their confidence. Keep that in mind the next time you’re the listener in a conversation.

Help Others Be Mindful Listeners

1) Get the person back on track. If you’re talking to someone and it’s obvious that his or her attention has been placed on something else – say, an iPhone – then it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Oh, do you need to call someone?” or “Any interesting Facebook statuses?” Such questions are not impolite, but still hint at the fact that you’re not gung-ho about not being listened to. They also give the other person the opportunity to explain the behavior – either he or she recognizes it’s rude to use a digital device during a conversation, or there is something more important that needs to be addressed. The person will be grateful for receiving permission to make a quick call rather than frantically texting back and forth with Mom about a family emergency.

2) Don’t be afraid to call a person out. You might be more comfortable doing this to friends, family and other people you know really well rather than strangers and acquaintances. Maybe you have a 13-year-old cousin who won’t stop playing Plants VS Zombies on his iPad – even when you’re trying to tutor him in algebra. Be kind but honest without trying to sound bitter. Say gently, “I know you really like that game, but I’m trying to tell you something important.” Or, if your uncle is checking the stocks on his iPhone, say jokingly, “I know you love your tech toys, Uncle Rob, but this is a story that I think you’ll appreciate.”

3) Be a model. The moment you whip out your phone in the middle of a dinner date is the moment you give your company the green light to do the same. So don’t. Practice the tips above for being a mindful listener (keeping eye contact, asking questions, etc.) and the other person just may mirror your actions. Don’t just be a model in order to be listened to, though. Be intentional about your listening skills and truly appreciate that someone else is investing time into creating a meaningful relationship with you.

“Digital Detox” is a weekly series curated by writer and curriculum developer Wendy Lu. Every Friday, we want to inspire you with content that focuses on disconnecting from technology and on rekindling a human connection. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #digitaldetox on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.

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