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Is social media changing the way we listen?

Could being more connected than ever before negatively impact the soft skill of listening?

Social media and our ability to connect online instantly with each other, at any time or place, has been a huge part of our personal & professional lives for years. Embedded in our daily operations, this technology has enabled us to talk & link up with more people than ever before. However, a short piece I read recently by Mentimeter, suggests that over the last ten years the behaviour we exhibit on social media platforms could be described as the decade of shouting. I wondered if using this medium so habitually had further negative behavioural implications on the soft skill of listening and how we deploy it professionally.

Mentimeter observes that social media has had a subtle yet pervasive effect on how we listen as a general skill today. They say:

“Social media originated from the power to connect people and give everyone a voice but in fact, it had just made us talk more and listen less.”

It’s true that social media has huge power to connect us all, but it has also evolved, in part, into a source of misinformation (The perceived necessity to fact-check information seems not to be a requirement). Everyone can now stand on their own soap box, meaning we speak out more than ever before, yet we listen even less.

Hearing better with active listening

Soft skills, like listening, are so valuable to the agile workforces of today that it is very important that we recognise these trends and make conscious efforts to take the impact of it seriously. Listening, the construction of “meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages,” enhances not only your own mood but workplace productivity and relationships as well. Those businesses, large and small, who are reinforcing the value of this proficiency will pull ahead of the rest.

Surprisingly :

"The average person listens with only about 25% efficiency"

The good thing here is that there is massive potential if we are conscious about how we listen. “Active listening” can be our main way of improving our listening efficiency. Active listening is defined as giving your complete, intentional focus to what someone says, rather than what their words literally mean. We have been conditioned through years of interacting in the on-line environment which promotes “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Our minds are now naturally trying to conduct multiple tasks all at once. For instance, how often do we have one eye on our desktops or phones when interacting at work. You may not be doing it consciously but in a corner of your mind you are thinking of that email you were waiting to come in, finishing off that graph for the report or what recipe might work for dinner tonight. As we are now dispelling the myth that an individual can multi-task competently, it is important that we address the impact this has on how we work together.

Not only are we distracted by factors external to the conversation but by the conversation itself and how we treat it. In discussion our natural pattern is to pick out key phrases and words from a conversation and concentrate on how we may form a response, usually ignoring much of what is inferred verbally and non-verbally as our distracted minds are focused inwards, on ourselves, and what we are going to respond with, not what is being said. We do this because, thanks to our on-line behaviours, we believe speed of the response is everything. We formulate a response way before we have finished listening to what is being said. When we think we are listening, we are usually too distracted or too focused on the answer to absorb information on anything but at its’ surface/superficial level. Active listening enables us to put aside our on-line conversational habits and reap the rewards from our interactions.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

- Dalai Lama

The Sound of silence

The next way to raise our listening proficiency is to master the art of silence. To quote Alfred Brendel: "The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'."

Of particular power in coaching, the timing and context of silence can be huge. Again we have been acclimatised by the speed in which we can, and are expected to, interact online to reduce our time spent on reflection and fill the void in conversation. Your ability to manage and implement silence in conversation is a good indicator of your ability to manage yourself. The British School of Coaching phrases this state of mind brilliantly:

“Are you more aligned to a Trappist monk approach (honouring the silence) or a Ski- Jumper (leaping in)?”

We naturally feel the need to avoid silence in conversation, particularly at work, but by opening up this time to reflect we can achieve greater impact in our key workplace interactions. For instance, silence can be a form of challenge, prompting others to reflect or evaluate what they have said. Moreover, if someone else is being silent we can combine this with our active listening skills and ask questions to explore what they are thinking. Finally, silence can be used at the close of an important conversation, allowing time to reflect, to digest what has been said and capture key highlights, resist the urge to return straight to other tasks. Silence and listening are essential skills in the always on-line world of today. Allowing those moments of silence to happen can be a formidable force of positive change in your business.

Social media is a fantastic tool and now a core component of our personal and professional lives. I wanted to write this short piece not as a sermon on the “evils of technology”, but how this culture altering technology has potentially diminished one of our most valuable soft skills, just when we need it most. We cannot deny that social technology has shaped the way we work and interact, and normally for the good, however we need to be aware of how the on-line environment has in some way reduced our humanity. By consciously implementing changes with active listening and unlocking the power in well-timed silences, we can have an impressive impact for the work environment, its output and our person to person interactions.


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Author -Scott Brent

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