Active Listening is not Listening

Frequently people complain to me that I am a terrible listener.   They claim that I don’t listen.   I admit they have a point.

At first I was hurt by the accusation because I think I am listening.   I try to demonstrate that I am listening by responding to what I am hearing with my understanding of what I am hearing.   I interpret the information based my world view and relay back what I think I just heard.   It is precisely this process that annoys everyone.

I think back to specific cases where there was an abrupt interruption of a conversation with the explicit charge that I am not listening.   I listened to this accusation like I listen to everything else which is to say I still was not listening.

Actually, I find delight in finding new information and especially in information about myself.   Although I tend to be sensitive, I prefer to hear complaints rather than praises when it comes to me.   I absorb this information.   I just do not absorb it the way people want.  When I hear criticism, I see it as a mirror and think I learned something new about who I am.   Usually that news encourages me because now I better understand what makes me tick.    Of course, I miss the point.   I do not hear the real message that I should change.   I don’t change.   I grow.

The same goes with all kinds of knowledge.  I am an equally bad student as I am a listener.    I think it is the same thing.  In both cases the talker sees himself as the teacher.  My role is to absorb what the teacher teaches.   The only real difference is that the teacher has the punitive powers of graded exams to assure I get his point.   I’ve been known to fail courses by refusing to provide the answers that I was sure the teacher wanted and instead supplied my own thoughts on the matter.

When someone starts talking, it is usually clear that they want something.   I recall a distant example when a college friend stayed at my place for a few days while he visited town for various business meetings.   During the evenings we had many conversations about general topics of where business was going.   I delighted in providing my point of view in response to what he was saying.   We had been friends because we were good about keeping conversations going for a long time.   To me I was listening by applying my perspective to what I just heard.   In fact I wasn’t listening because he was trying to get me to join his enterprise.    In truth, I recognized this from the moment we first greeted each other.   I did listen.  I just didn’t let him know it because I was looking forward to a long conversation.   He left with his mission failed.   We talked but I didn’t listen.

It is hard to interpret the modern world.   The world itself is changing rapidly.   This is especially true in the form of communications.   The social network technologies are revolutionary in a way that was impossible to anticipate when I was growing up.   This is unfortunate because of the confusion it causes me as I consider my current circumstances.   Is my attitude toward communication a consequence of my getting older or is it a consequence of the availability of this new technology?    Perhaps it is a little of both.

Recently there was a LinkedIn Pulse post that stated we are now in a connected world.   The point of the post is that the current reality is a reality where everyone is becoming technologically connected to the rest of the world.  In particular, once a person joins the technical connection, he will always remain connected.   Being connected is addicting.   Alternatively, being connected taps a human instinct.   We would have always been so connected if only the technology had been available earlier.

Over the years, we have seen mass movements that were possible by the technology of being connected.  I’ve watched the growth of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and so on.   I’ve heard reports of flash mobs and social-networking enabled protests.    The combination of recognizing one’s own connections and the evidence of the power of interconnections gives powerful proof that we are in a new reality of a connected world.

But what does being connected really mean?   My basic definition is that I can receive messages from any person in the world in an instant.   But that’s me, a person who doesn’t listen.  The real definition is that one listens to these messages, where listening means empathizing, sympathizing, and obeying.   Truly being connected is to be moved by that those connections.    Flash mobs are only possible if people actually go out of their way to do whatever it was that was being organized.   Being connected is to be moved to do things that are not to ones own benefit but instead to the benefit of the crowd, or more specifically to benefit of making the crowd possible.

Listening means joining the crowd.   Being connected means becoming part of a crowd.   Crowds are impressive, but they are hardly innovations.   We didn’t recently invent crowds.

My objection to the point about this becoming a new connected reality is the observation that not everyone wants to be in the crowd.  Crowds are very misleading.  I hear of stories of how influential something is because it has millions of views or followers or whatever.   A million is a respectable size crowd, but what is missing is the billions of non-followers.

I made this point in the last post when I pointed out the misinterpretation of street filling crowds in popular protests.   We see the protests where cities are shut down because everyone is clogging the streets.   Obviously, we think, everyone must be in the streets.  In fact there are a few tens of thousands in the street of a city of several millions.   Not everyone is out there.   It turns out that it was the people who were not in the streets who were the ones we should have been paying attention to.

Some people delight in being crowds.   The point of the LinkedIn Pulse article was that there was a marketing opportunity to sell to these crowds.   Imagine the potential of being able to manipulate the crowds.   Instead of humorous flash mobs, why not flash buying sprees?   Crowds can be manipulated.   Don’t miss out on the change to manipulate crowds or even create new ones.

I paid attention to the several recent government protests.   I paid attention to the individual compelling accounts.   I paid attention to people in the crowd, believing in the movement, being surrounded by people of like minded believers.   I felt strong empathy for their efforts and their desires.    Then I saw that the crowds were largely manipulated by forces that did not share their objectives and dreams.   I saw that the crowd turned out to be decisively outnumbered by their opposition.   Just as there is an appeal to crowds, there is a greater appeal to manipulate crowds.

Crowds are not new.   We kid ourselves into thinking we are in some kind of new age brought about about connected social networks technologies.   These are just crowds.   Most people don’t like being in crowds.   Many people delight in creating and manipulating crowds.    Some people get wise to this, and avoid crowds even when it would be easy to join.

I believe a lot of people that appear to be connected are really not.   Many people who’ve signed up to follow a particular person or entity in fact are not following them.   Many more people had the opportunity to follow but chose not to.    I am guessing many people who do participate in the connected reality do so only briefly and then ignore it.   They have other motivations.

I discuss this idea of conforming to the crowd as an illustration of what it means to listen.   The definition of listening does not necessary mean to agree with what is being said, but it does mean to join whatever group the speaker belongs to.

In contrast, active listening effectively declines that invitation to join the crowd.

The active listener refuses to join the crowd even when he agrees with all of the points.   The active part is to continue the conversation as an outsider.   It is that continuation of remaining an outsider that is proof of not listening.

I value active listening.  Coincidentally, I hate being in crowds.


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