Tag Archives: listening

The Listening Surcharge

fuel-gaugeThe body levels a kind of energy surcharge for focusing on the feelings and ideas of others.

New cars come with instruments that let a driver know how well they are stretching a gallon of gasoline.  Hit the accelerator for repeated jackrabbit starts and the car will let you know you could do better.  Mine has a video display that sends a not-so-subtle message of leaves falling off branches.

We don’t have the same metrics to let us know when we draining our personal energy supplies.  But we know.  Spend an afternoon hiking, cutting wood, cleaning a house  or listening to Uncle Fred’s conspiracy theories and we can immediately recognize the effects of physical or mental exhaustion.

The last instance is a special case.  Straining to capture another’s words is tiring: perhaps less in terms of calories burned than in the mental fatigue that comes with processing and reacting.

For most of us, speaking appears to be the key communication challenge. Who doesn’t blanch at the thought of formally addressing a group?  But accurate and thoughtful listening is often more demanding. The body levels an energy surcharge for being intensely engaged with the feelings and ideas of others.  Following another’s rhetorical wanderings is more taxing than creating our own. Even though the body appears to be inactive, the mind may need to function like a turbocharger responding to an engorgement of air and fuel.

Some jobs are repetitious. We can perform them without becoming cognitively engaged.  But talk to a psychotherapist, a judge, a court reporter, a good customer-relations specialist or a score of individuals in the “people” business, and most will report mental exhaustion at the end of the day.  Hearing others well enough to successfully deal with their problems is an underrated skill. I’m certain the hardest work I do as a professor is–of all things–listening to formal student debates.  In my course in Argumentation I need to hear and assess speeches, rebuttals, counterclaims, and cross-examination questions and answers.  At the end of the debate my notes look like less organized version of a New York City subway map.  Even so, I still miss a lot. Tuning out for even a few seconds allows ideas to escape unheard or underappreciated.

It helps to formally put the task on the day’s agenda of the hard work that lies ahead.

None of us are immune from the fatigue that comes with listening for meaning and nuance.  What helps, however, is the creation of a conscious awareness that an impending listening task will be its own kind of tough work. For this reason it helps to acknowledge listening challenges to be faced before they start. Just as you might “psych” yourself help for a presentation to a group of people, it is helpful to mentally process the fact that the next minutes or hours will require some prodigious listening. This puts the task on the day’s agenda of the challenging work to be completed.  Think of how often you pass on specific and important information to others who show no sign that they see the moment as significant.  Note taking, or asking for clarification would be what most information-givers would like to see.  What we usually get instead is an individual cognitively ‘idling’ while giving the appearance of being tuned in.

It would be nice to report that mental effort burns calories.  But that’s not really the case.  Mental exertion does seem to burn glucose, but that’s no pathway to weight control.  And there’s the rub. The energy we expend in active listening produces mental fatigue, but not a physical “burn,” giving most of it’s benefits to the person who was given the gift of being heard accurately.

Resolutions for Better Communication

                                                            Denver Colorado’s Civic Center

It’s time for the annual ritual of making promises to ourselves about what we will change in the coming year.  In that spirit, consider a few resolutions that would make us and those we care about better communication partners. 

  • Resolve to be a better listener.

    Becoming an engaged listener is like losing weight: it’s harder than it sounds.  It requires momentarily giving ourselves over to what another is saying.  That must include minimizing other distractions, turning off the far too loquacious chatterbox camped out in our brains, and accepting the challenge of bringing our full attention to another. We can’t do this with everyone all the time.  Listening for nuance is work.  Start with the people that matter most.

  • Protect your soul by deciding to be a more thoughtful gatekeeper and information consumer.

    We allow a lot of worthless messages into our lives:  junk journalism, junk advertising, aimless web-browsing, mean-spirited trolls and the self-obsessed. As tech writer Farhad Manjoo noted last year in the New York Times, the Internet is “loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly.”  It “now seems to be on constant boil.”   So it takes far more personal discipline to keep this stuff at bay and to hold on to our social equilibrium.

    The key is to stay in the discursive world of long-form discourse as much as possible, spending time on articles rather than tweets, in-depth journalism instead of ‘news summaries,’ films in place of youtube videos.

  • Work to put a reasonable limit on the time your children spend with all kinds of screens.

    The American Pediatric Association recommends that children under two spend no time in front of screens.  They need more interactivity as they begin to grow.  Remember that “virtual reality” is a desert compared to the natural world.  Rediscover local parks or just the simple pleasures of a walk around the block.  With my own grandkids it’s been fun to relearn the truth that even young children are naturally weatherized.  Most love to be out and active even in the cold.

  • Resolve to save important feelings and information for face to face discussion.

    Proximity with others usually brings out the best in us.  Media that act as surrogates for ourselves (even misnamed “social” media) offer only selected approximations of the real deal.

  • Listen to more music.

    Because it’s almost exclusively the language of feeling, music unites us in ways that ordinary rhetoric can’t.  A friend reports that Mozart has been a nice escape from the numbing effects of recent political news.

  • Help seniors take a break from television news.

    We have convincing research that many older Americans succumb to a deep and unhealthy pessimism fed by too much news and mayhem. Television is often how they pass the time, especially if they live in a facility.  Do what you can to show them the more normal world outside their door.

  • Don’t believe everything you read.

    Apply some healthy skepticism to both real news stories, as well as the paid “clickbait” stories that are often nearby.  In 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that too many Americans form attitudes from conjecture and misinformation, often from low-credibility sources.

  • With the possible exception of those strange relatives up in Duluth, resist dividing the world into “us” and “them.”

    We may think in simple binaries.  But In the end, the complexities of individual lives will always deal the deck that we and others have to play.  Even after this brutal presidential election we need to find the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the inadequacies of our labels.

                    Happy Holidays!