In our fast-paced, overstimulated lives, we are overrun by chatter: the sounds that fill our ears, the lights, colors, and images that wash over our eyes, and the technology that commands our attention all day, every day. In great part, it is the stimuli that bombard us day in and day out that distract our attention, diminish our ability to listen, and ultimately fracture human connections. And while there is no escaping these stimuli, simple awareness techniques can not only inform our understanding of ourselves, but also enhance our ability to connect.
There is an intimate relationship between our ability to connect to others and our capacity to listen. Listening recruits all our senses to recognize subtleties such as tone, mood, inflection, and body language. Awareness of these subtleties is the key to interpreting the real meaning of what is being said. To simply “hear someone” is to log the words being said without considering the nuances that color their meaning. You may hear the words of your co-worker, friend, or loved one, but it takes listening to understand, reason, remember, and bring meaning to what is being expressed.
To evaluate how you connect, start by asking yourself if you hear or if you listen when engaged in conversation. If you are uncertain, check in with yourself and your level of awareness with four simple techniques.
Acknowledging asks you to notice distractions in your daily life. Are there specific stimuli that influence your ability to live in the now? Does light, noise, smell, or imagery distract your attention away from a conversation and allow your mind to wander, splintering your ability to focus and truly listen? Notice what distracts you. Once you’ve acknowledged the types of stimuli that affect you, you can take the next step.
Witnessing involves discerning when and where, specifically, these distractions affect you. For example, you may be distracted by music and outside conversations in a coffee shop but can block out these distractions at a restaurant. Or you may be more alert in the morning or the evening depending on your personality and sleep schedule. Understanding the when and where better enable you to establish scenarios in which you can be your best self and listen most effectively.
Defining requires you to think about how you react to those stimuli. Do your eyes wander away from the person sitting across from you? Do you tune out of a conversation and start thinking about your grocery list? Seeing your reactivity patterns answers how stimuli affect you.
The final and most critical step, conceptualizing, combines all of this information to help you better understand why these distractions affect your ability to focus. Do you keep looking at your watch because you’re crunched for time? Are family obligations adding undo stress to your life? Any number of scenarios may play into your inability to focus, to be aware, and to listen.
Once you consider these factors, you can work to diminish your strongest and most pervasive distractions. Without distraction, you can be more fully present and all of your senses can focus on listening. And the reward for listening is great: you’ll build stronger bonds with your most cherished friends, family, and loved ones.
- Keep a journal. To more clearly understand the types of distractions that pull your attention away from interactions, keep track of what distracted you.
- Ask a friend. It is hard to hear criticism—I get it—but sometimes asking a friend for the honest truth about your weaknesses is the most expedient way to a solution. Choose a close friend—someone whose judgment you trust—to help point out your actions when you’re distracted. Their insight can give you a jumpstart on identifying your patterns of behavior. And the faster you can identify them, the sooner you can be a better listener and friend!
- Eliminate distractions. Once you have identified what distracts you, how it distracts you, and why it distracts you, it is time to put your self-discovery into action. Be honest with yourself. You may need to leave your phone in your bag, choose quieter places to meet for conversations, or take steps to organize and/or simplify your life in order to become a better listener and feel more connected to others.