Jun 13 '19

Is anyone listening?

By: Curtis R. Sprouse

June 2019

In a world of constant information overload, we have all observed a decline in the art of listening and comprehending information. We are all overwhelmed with information, much of it inaccurate or spun to influence the way we think and act.

Our school-aged children do not remember a day without having a smartphone on them. Even when they undertake activates like swimming, showering, tennis, soccer, bike riding, or skiing—they quickly return to their devices as soon as the event ends. We see increasingly younger children with phones, as well.

Smartphones and similar devices are just as problematic for adults. How often have you been in a restaurant where most patrons have their phone on the table? How often have you been in a restaurant or movie theater where the patrons are head down in their phone as others are eating, or as the movie is about to start? How many of you sleep with your cell phone on your night stand? The excuse I often get in training sessions when I ask this question is that, “my phone is my alarm clock.” Why not buy an actual alarm clock? This would eliminate the distraction of a ringing, buzzing, or screen indicator going off all night.

These are a few examples of social and lifestyle dynamics that did not exist 20 years ago. Make no mistake, these dynamics of our society are robbing us of our ability to listen and see situations. The ability to listen effectively requires the combination of art and science. The examples I have provided are robbing society of time and quality interactions. The time we had spent decades ago conversing, sharing, playing, learning from and listening to others has been diminished. We do not get better at things we fail to do!

As individuals, we need to improve and focus on developing better listening skills. We need to deliberately think about how we engage others, as our ability to exchange accurate information will become more critical, not less, as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives.

Our ability to influence situations will be a fundamental strength of the high-valued worker as we advance into the future. Why? Because jobs are being replaced by machines, computers, and robots that can perform artificial intelligence-based functions, like deep learning. The ability to learn from information, listening and seeing (see Jeremy Howard’s TED Talk for more information on the topic ) will be critical to the high-functioning relevant employee. Some estimates indicate that 47% of all of the jobs in the industrialized world will vanish in the next 25 years1. It is only a matter of time, not if but when, that will reduce the need for humans doing many jobs.

The work force will need people who can collaborate, communicate, and affect change. The ability to work with others, lead others and positively contribute to the advancement and improvement of a situation will be critical, if one is to matter in the evolving and dynamic work environment.

Improving listening skills and situational comprehension requires three areas of development.

First area of development: People need to limit distractions, like smartphones, tablets, computers, and background noise, and focus on the presenter.

Second area of development: People need to understand what behavioral factors, both genetic and learned, are impacting their ability to effectively engage in listening. Tactical strategies can work, but not for all, and not at the level that will profoundly improve one’s ability to listen, comprehend, and learn. Let’s examine the behavioral landscape that impacts our ability to listen and why it is so important.

Listening is often compromised by physical and/or mental impatience. Physical and mental impatience are genetic dynamics of personality. We can manage genetic characteristics of behavior but we cannot easily change them. It is hard to get people who always seem to be in high gear physically to slow down. Mental impatience is driven by the highly-creative mind (high Reflectivity). These people think outside the box. They are creative, innovative individuals. Their minds tend to race within a topic as well as from topic to topic. These people tend to overthink situations and can go off in tangents as they see so many options and iterations in a given a topic. On the other side of the spectrum we have the lower Reflectivity person who is more focused, more pragmatic and tends to eliminate information seen as noise and focus on key points that will support action. This is not to say that the data or process undertaken by the low Reflectivity person is not complicated and vast. But the lower Reflectivity person will get to the key factors, they will intellectually simplify and focus in a more efficient way.

It is the difference intellectually between a creative composer like Mozart or Beethoven (high Reflectivity) and a person that performs more repetitive activities that can require strong intellect but lower levels of creativity, like a Capital Equipment Salesperson or many people in the Investment field.

Physical and Intellectual impatience can be exasperated by strong Dominance and strong Competitive personalities. Again, two genetic behaviors that can be managed but not changed. If someone exhibits the need to win (Compete) and control (Dominate) conversations they will tend to tune out before they clearly understand the others perspective. When paired with high Energy and high Reflectivity, the person has a lot of strong behavioral dynamics working against them, as it relates to the art of listening.

The behavioral opportunity to improve listening starts with the development of Compromise, management of Expertise (confidence) and balance of Communication (ones need for and ability to provide information with balance). These learned behaviors are critical to a person being better able to manage strong genetic behavioral characteristics. When a person can moderate Compromise, being open to new ideas in an inquisitive constructive fashion, they project enthusiasm and interest that strengthens the presenter’s connection and confidence, improving the flow of the conversation and exchange of information. As a person improves their ability to show interest without overconfidence, moderating Expertise relative to the topic and balance the need for and ability to provide information responding to a data point prematurely, they will heighten their ability to effectively moderate high Energy, high Reflectivity, strong Dominance, and aggressive Competing behaviors.

Third area of development is the development of physical characteristics of listening. Do you look at the presenter? Do you make strong comfortable eye contact? Do you multi-task? Do you present as some one that is open, attentive and interested in what is being said and who is saying it? Do you typically smile, with a calm attentive demeanor? Have you put your phone or notepad down to focus on the person who is speaking? Do you really look at and focus on them, not past them or around them?

These are just some of the physical activities that signal that you are interested in what is being said. When we relax and enjoy the receipt of information, it is easier to focus and eliminate mental distractions or the urge to comment and respond with opinion and judgement. These are the signals that keep one actively engaged longer in listening and help the presenter feel that they are being heard.

A few years ago, I started paying more attention to my wife Stephanie when she came home from work and started telling me about her day at school. I no longer have my smartphone in hand, or even in eye shot. I do not pick-up the paper, mail, or a magazine. I will shut off the TV or stop the music if it is on when she begins to speak. I watch her. I focus on her and what she is saying. I ask open-ended questions that allow her to elaborate. I listen to understand, not to provide a response. When I take this approach, I hear much more. When she notices I have taken this approach, she is more interested in telling me about her day. Her demeanor changes and her focus improves. She provides more detail and takes greater interest in telling me about her day.

Try it…it works. Make yourself accountable to others. Not only at home, but at the office, with friends and in a store with people you have never met before. Do not rush to critique or advise. Years ago, Stephanie just wanted to tell me about her day to vent. She was not looking for advice or recommendations every time she told me about a situation at school. She did not need me to control the conversation (strong Dominance), advise her on what I would have done (high Expertise) or win the discussion by providing the ultimate solution (strong Competing). She just needed me to listen with an open mind (moderate Compromise), show care for her situation (Goodwill) and understand what she was experiencing (Reflectivity). If she wanted my advice, she told me she would ask for it.

How can we do all of this? It sounds like a lot, and it is. Micro changes in behavior over relatively short periods of time are how you start. Caroline Leaf in her book Switch on Your Brain, provides evidence that structural changes in the brain occur in 21 days. The more 21-day cycles you can string together, the more likely the change will stick and the more pronounced the changes in our brain will become. Hormones will facilitate new connections in the brain and the connections and hormones will stimulate increased activity in the regions of the brain that facilitate the new desired behavior.

Daniel Amen has done extensive research on the brain utilizing imaging technology. His use of SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) imaging over 20 years of research has allowed him and his colleagues to define structural problems in the brain and compromised blood flow associated with various conditions that include but are not limited to depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's. His work has shown that the utilization of brain exercise can change the physical properties of the brain and blood flow in the brain reversing these extreme conditions or arresting the progression of the disease. In other words, we can change our brains.

When we can develop and teach these concepts, we will help ourselves and the future generation listen in an effective way. When we teach, we strive to develop deeper comprehension of a topic. We will improve collaboration and increase productivity. We will enhance societies ability to see reality and we will find more satisfaction in our activities.

People who are listened to feel a greater sense of importance and comfort in sharing. People who listen actively can shape/influence conversations and learn more. The process yields better results and outcomes and will transcend the evolution of technology in our lives. Being able to help, support, guide and work with others will always be an important part of society. Let’s not forget how important! Are you Listening?

1.47% of jobs will vanish in the next 25 years, say Oxford University researchershttps://bigthink.com/philip-perry/47-of-jobs-in-the-next-25-years-will-disappear-according-to-oxford-university

Note: Scores, profiles, or assessments referenced in this article refer to characteristics defined in the EurekaConnect Behavioral Dynamics program

About the author: Curtis R. Sprouse is the President and CEO of EurekaConnect, LLC. Curtis has spent more than 25 years building companies and consulting for hundreds of the fortune 500 companies.

EurekaConnect, LLC uses proven technologies and data driven solutions that objectively and measurably improve organizational performance. For more information please e-mail:customerservice@eurekaconnect.com.