Sunday, June 1, 2008

How to Deftly Deal with a Distracted Listener

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with someone when you suddenly realize they’re not even listening to you? Sure, they appear like they’re listening—they nod their head at various intervals, or interject pointless questions to keep you going. But as far as "active listening" is concerned, they obviously “checked out” long ago.

This practice is becoming a standard during phone conversations, when people are easily distracted by other factors while talking to you. Especially people who insist on calling you when they’re in traffic jam, so you can listen to them constantly scream expletives at other drivers. (So much fun!) Or the parent who calls you just as his child is having a tantrum, so you can suffer through two simultaneous conversations—the one the parent is having with you, and the one the parent is having with his child. And guess which conversation eventually wins? That’s right, the escalating argument with the child. Sometimes the parent even leaves your conversation to go yell at his children, and then never returns. They also forget to hang up the phone, allowing you an uncomfortably intimate peak into their domestic dynamics, an opportunity best left untaken. (Trust me!)

Nevertheless, I am used to people zoning out during phone conversations. We tend to be a society addicted to multi-tasking, so most phone conversations now take place while people are working, driving, on the computer, reading a book, or any number of other actions which allow them to talk at the same time. (However, if I ever hear anyone flush a toilet at any time during our conversation, I immediately end the call. After all, there are certain “distractions” I don’t need to be a part of.)

So during phone conversations, I give some leeway when it comes to a person’s attention span. But when someone is standing directly in front of you and you suddenly notice their eyes glaze over, or their attention shift to the table next to you, chances are they’re thoughts are elsewhere. At this point, I usually stop talking, allowing their processing system to catch up on their lack of participation. The more abrupt, the better, because this will immediately jolt the inactive listener into “defense mode.” They suddenly become very attentive and scramble to remember the last tangible thing they heard you say. Usually it was something you said at the beginning of the conversation, a realization that not only embarrasses your distracted listener, but hopefully keeps them attentive for the remainder of your exchange.

So whatever happened to good listening skills? Have we become so busy and over-extended in our lives that we need our conversations served to us in small bite-size portions in order to fit them into the rest of our schedule? To me, there is nothing more satisfying or stimulating than a good conversation with people I enjoy. I hope the era of text messaging doesn’t eventually encapsulate our interchanges into a series of blips and beeps, because the human voice is a terrible thing to waste.

But that’s just me. What do you do when you notice someone zone out during a conversation? Or do you even notice? (Which may have completely different implications.)


tashabud said...

My husband tells me all the time that I don't listen to him. I'm one of those that you need to get my attention first by calling my name before talking, especially when I'm watching t.v. or working. I work with people who talk to themselves while they work. If they don't say my name before speaking to me, I just ignore them, thinking that that they're just mumbling to themselves again. But I know what you mean about people in front of you who pretend they're listening, but they aren't. If I know them enough, I usually put my hand infront of them and ask whether they're with me or somewhere else. If I don't know them then I just leave and tell myself how rude they are. I notice though that if a person's voice is so high pitched or monotone, I tend to zone them out more than other voice pitches.

RoxiticusDH said...

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A. said...

I had a great deal of practice with a boss who did that. He'd ask a question and not listen to the answer. I had the abrupt stop down to a fine art. I could stop mid-word, and often did. It worked very well, as you say :)

Henson Ray said...

Tashabud, A monotone voice can put me to sleep too. So can a monochrome picture.

Roxy, I can't believe you gave me homework. I'm working on it right now.

a., I've had that same problem with bosses, who tend to read e-mail while talking on the phone. Needless to say, neither the text or oral conversation gets the proper amount of attention.