Tag Archives: peripheral attention

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Easily the Most Common Communication Deficit


Our constructed selves are mostly held together by a desire to assert identities intended to cast a shadow.  We want to be a presence; someone who is more cause than effect.

With its nearly infinite varieties, communication is usually about nuance.  Few challenges or strategies are foolproof or easily applied.   Even ‘best practices’ are usually contingent.  But this is not true if we seek an answer to at least one straightforward question.  When the query is ‘what is the most common deficiency most people show in their interactions with others?’ a firm response can given in two words: effective listening.  This is mostly because the mantra of our age is to first take care of ourselves. This may usually be good for our overall mental health, but it can be no surprise that our interactions reveal a common desire to bring most conversations back to ourselves.

This is an age where celebrity demands our attention; we routinely honor people who make their mark through whatever forms of validation we admire.  Our media is populated with these figures. And as more and more research is confirming, social media often function the same way, offering constructed displays of enviable lives. It follows that our own efforts at self-repair are motivated by the desire to offer versions of ourselves that will cast a shadow.  We want to be presence; someone who is more cause than effect; the one who is the source of attention rather than the one who attends.

Cameras were once used to capture the images of others.  Now they are often turned around to create ‘selfies’ that we can pass along the digital food chain.

And so communication between equals can easily devolve into exchanges that can best be understood as ‘taking turns.’  The preoccupation of self that defines our age plays out in the simple desire to be at the center of typical exchange, preferencing our judgments and conclusions over interest in giving others space to lay out what are often extended narratives.

The impulse to be heard rather than to hear is unevenly spread across the culture.  It seems strongest in adults, which is perhaps why so many young adults are impatient with offers of advice from older family members. The circles of influence for the young are smaller and tighter, leaving less of an appetite for giving time to parents who are ready to assert their authority and credibility.  We’ve even turned this pattern into a Hollywood trope: films about the lives of teens rarely allow parents or teachers to be the pivotal influencers they hope to be. Think of Greta Gerwig’s recent film Ladybird (2017).  Mom and daughter are mostly on different planets. Screenplays like Ladybird typically write older figures as foils more than resources.

It’s not that we don’t listen to anyone anymore.  Functionally, most of us spend large parts of every day in front of a screen that is asking for attention to spoken or written messages.  But this is ‘listening’ at its lowest gradient.  Peripheral attention to a figure in a video is qualitatively a long way from the more active listening that is often needed to produce a conversation that can be enlightening or even transformative.  Our excessive attention to packaged media requires only a passive kind of reception, setting us up to be frail listeners when circumstances demand so much more.