–by Heather Murphy
Sometimes, people are talking to me and I’m not really listening, not all the way. It’s not that I’m faking it, I’m not; though my dad says there are a quadrillion synapses in the human nervous system, there are a finite number of them I’m capable of firing in a given day without falling into a short-circuited heap onto an unswept floor. Certain things will be processed with as much critical thinking muscle as it takes to blink, or take in oxygen.
There are keywords that prick up my ears: Mom, hungry, food, chocolate, late, sex, please, and my first name are about the length of it, however.
I am not always in this state of not-really-listening. In fact, much of the time, I can be eagerly attentive, letting my natural curiosity and piqued interest lead me to all sorts of stories and information. But if I am writing, or recalling, or attempting to make four tasty dishes appear simultaneously on the table with steam still emanating from them, I might not hear the details of your new minecraft world. I might miss the fact that the furnace filter needs to be changed. And I might only nod my head and mumble into the oven when my dad comes over for dinner early to inform me that Transcriptional Bursting is messenger RNAs being produced from a DNA template.
Not-really-listening happens when I am pushing the limits of my neurological abilities. If I am working out a problem in my head, I can’t tune in to the voices all around me.
As I typed the last sentence—which sounded like the inner dialog of a schizophrenic, I know–I lied: “Yes,” to a question my husband asked me, and even mustered eye contact and a smile, and I have no idea what subject he was even attempting to discuss with me. His voice was calm and friendly, and currently, he seems happy to keep chattering sweetly as I bang away on the keyboard with the limited amount of time I have to do so before other people’s stomachs drag me unceremoniously away.
Though multitasking has become the modus operandi of our culture, I find it difficult to type an interesting blog, on-the-fly, and listen to people talk about the installation process for a spa filter. At least that’s what I think he was talking about—I didn’t hear any keywords, or sense distress, so I could not tell you with any certainty, but I hear the motor of the thing now, so I’ve taken liberties, extrapolating. The brain is wonderful that way.
But hearing is not listening. Listening requires that you be all-there to hear the words. You cannot do so if you are elsewhere, in your mind, working out your important problems. Listening can be a kind of magic, where you take in information and suffuse it with your own insights, emotional responses, memories, and wisdom, and create the rich dynamic of communication with another person by feeding this back to them. How can you do that and roast brussel sprouts at the same time?
Active listening as a psychology term was coined by Carl Rogers. It involves listening closely and attentively, then paraphrasing, at opportune moments, to let the speaker know you are abreast of the situation. In my family, we set time aside specifically for this, since too much of the time, there are distractions. Keeping open and interested lines of communication with my children is crucial to all of us. When I actively listen, I can pry, interject, question, learn, laugh, and deepen my understanding of the people I care to hear.
Rapidly, we are moving into a time of communication overload, which is really cloaked scarcity. It is a bitter irony that the more online and gadget communicating people are doing now, the less face to face contact they are having with real live people. Active listening will become a lost art, or somehow used as flattery for the exploitation of stupid people with money, and that is a shame. When you listen, you learn.