How to tackle the listening problem and make conversations meaningful.
Let’s talk about sticky notes. We’ve all used those colorful, physically post-able paper squares to keep track of a deadline, post an inspirational quote on a monitor, or label the stack of folders on our desk. They’re an office staple used to organize the chaos in our world. But have they taught us bad habits?
Thanks (in part) to these little tags, we’ve become so used to labeling that the practice has crept into our interpersonal relationships.
We often place metaphorical “sticky notes” on the people we meet. At first introduction, we immediately begin to make assumptions about them. If we’re not careful, we may even start to define someone by the labels we put on them. And that’s a problem. No matter how specific we think they are, our labels could never fully describe a human being.
My father has a quote that changed my perspective in life. He says, “people are far more complex than our overly simplistic perception of them.”
Go ahead and read that again.
And then think about this: The acquaintance or coworker you’ve labeled as cold and distant is fighting a battle you have no idea about. People are more complex than we sometimes realize. And when we acknowledge this, we can begin to better understand them by moving forward with humility and genuine curiosity.
Loneliness Problem? More Like a Listening Problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the challenges facing organizations today. After switching to remote work options out of necessity at the beginning of 2020, many organizations have continued to offer remote or hybrid models for their employees because they see the value in improving work/life balance. However, this movement created a new set of challenges.
Recent research has revealed a loneliness problem in the most digitally connected time in history.
In a Harvard study, 36% of respondents claimed serious loneliness — feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time to all the time.”1 The study went on to report that “43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. About half . . . reported that no one in the past few weeks had ‘taken more than just a few minutes’ to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person ‘genuinely cared.'”1
This loneliness stems from a major listening problem. And that’s leading us to miss the opportunity to form deeper connections.
By relying on the surface-level “sticky note” labels we place on people, we miss our chance to develop meaningful relationships with them. Digital technologies like social media and email are incredible resources for reaching out, but they can never replace the depth of connection humans need. In fact, these technologies often devalue the importance of listening to another person.
So, How Do We Fix It?
Genuine listening isn’t just about hearing. It’s about responding.
Sociologist Charles Derber outlines two types of responses in conversation — shift and support.2 Derber defines the shift response as “conversational narcissism,” where the listener shifts the focus from the speaker’s thoughts and ideas back to themself. Shift response conversations are exhausting and frustrating because they hold no possibility of meaningful connection.
However, Derber also describes the support response, which is one where the listener encourages elaboration from the speaker to gain a better understanding of what they are trying to communicate. By turning from shift to support, we can start to develop profound connections with another person.
In addition to crafting thoughtful responses, here are three practical applications that can help your organization combat the loneliness and listening problems facing our digital-focused world:
- Value In-Person Interactions. Our default should be to hold conversations face-to-face, or at least through a video conference. This allows us to hear the tonalities in the speaker’s voice, read their body language, and ask for clarification in the moment when we don’t understand.
- LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. One of the easiest ways to show we care is by genuinely paying attention to what the other person is saying. Too often, we start thinking about our response before the other person has finished, and we stop listening.
- Think Outside Yourself. It takes intentional effort to focus on others, but it’s highly rewarding when we do. People are typically a lot more interesting than we give them the opportunity to be.
No matter our roles — whether a spouse, parent, manager, or a friend — we can all learn from one another. As technology and the demands of work and life show no signs of slowing, Cargo’s CEO, Toby Stansell, says “we might find that it is not so bad to forego a little efficiency for the enjoyment of a genuine relationship.”3
1 Harvard University. “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened the Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It.” 2021.
2 Charles Derber. “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life.” 1979.
3 Toby Stansell. “Digital Communication and the Demise of Genuine Dialogue.” N.D.