At least half the time I explain something, the response shows that the other person was not really focused on the explanation, their mind was wandering, they were distracted, or just didn’t think it was important to pay attention. Most people have experienced this, and most people feel disappointment from the other person’s inattentiveness.
You can tell by the response when someone was not really listening. They make a statement that is off topic or incongruent. They ask a question that was explicitly covered in your initial communication and very simple to understand. Or they just ask you to repeat the whole thing because they “didn’t catch it.” In all these cases, there is a subtle but real message of disrespect towards the speaker. The speaker may process that disrespect without skipping a beat, and immediately restate or elaborate or whatever remedies the other person’s failure to listen. The “slight” can vary widely, from very pardonable legitimate distraction or duress on the listener’s part, to a very unpardonable dismissive attitude on the listener’s part.
Beyond the question of disrespect, there is the question of personal integrity. My self-esteem is tied to my actions, that I behave with integrity. When someone talks to me, I listen. I’m not perfect, but that’s my goal and my standard. It’s an important part of integrity. I measure myself based on the care I take in every activity, and how active-mindedly I engage in every moment.
In addition to respect and integrity, there is also efficiency. When someone doesn’t listen, at the very least, information has to be re-communicated. But usually it’s worse—failure to listen leads to mistakes, defects, damage, injury, and the resultant rework, repair, blame and finger-pointing. These are typical feeders of inefficiency and lower morale.
Right and Wrong
I rarely speak of right and wrong in how to engage in life. But being passive is almost always wrong. The bifurcated communication theory that “Speaker = Active — Listener = Passive” is wrong. Listening requires active engagement, and should be approached as a strenuous activity, in which the listener does at least as much of the work as the speaker. The listener must capture the information accurately (based on nonverbals, context, connotations, implications, and other subtleties as well as concrete semiotic data), then process it and reformulate into coherent and meaningful responses, questions, disagreements, synthesis with other ideas. If you fail to do this, you fail your responsibility as from one human being to another, as a colleague in life as well as a colleague in the office.
A Better World
Some people call it “active listening” or “engaged listening.” But I think that waters down the main point: You either listen, or you don’t listen. We can make a big difference by listening. We can make the world a better place, where people feel respected, respect each other, feel stronger integrity inside with higher self-esteem, get more work done with higher quality, knowing everyone else is doing the same. That’s a world with high morale and camaraderie. I think we’d all like to live there.
Read more from my book
Call of the Active Mind
©Copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016