Consider this research from the Associated Press:
The average attention span in 2012: 8 seconds
The average attention span in 2000: 12 seconds
The average attention span of a goldfish: 9 seconds
Clearly, we’ve got an attention span problem in our culture.
Each day, the majority of us spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours communicating. The ability to communicate and be present with each other is one of the most important things we learn as humans. Effective communication creates a bond of closeness, reduces conflict, enhances personal and professional relationships, and in many cases, helps you get more of what you want out of life. But, when faced with the chance to listen to what someone has to say, to tune in a “be present,” most of us usually fall short. We’re busy thinking about ourselves, or our errands, our work or in so many cases, we’re busy focused on electronics.
E-mail. Smartphones. The 24-hour news cycle. In a time of all-encompassing technology, we’re busier and more distracted than ever. As we dive farther down the multitasking rabbit hole, it becomes more difficult to do the one thing that may be key to our personal and business success: pay attention.
“Giving someone our full, undivided attention is fundamental to our business and interpersonal relationships,” says life coach Jack Bennett, Ph.D., who explores happiness, behavior change, and personal development on his blog, thirtytwothousanddays.com. Really listening to someone, making eye contact and hearing them, makes them feel appreciated, and creates a positive feeling for them about you.
What’s more, people who are good listeners are more liked, rated as more attractive and garner more trust than those who are less proficient at listening, according to Graham D. Bodie, professor of communication studies at The Louisiana State University. If that’s not enough motivation to keep your eyes, ears and mind open, good listeners are also high academic achievers, have better socio-emotional development and are even more likely to get promoted at work.
So how do you become someone who pays attention?
“Being present with somebody, listening to what they have to say and not just waiting for your turn to speak,” says Bennett. “Really ‘getting’ the person. Understanding what they’re telling you and why. That’s how connections with other people are formed.”
In order to truly connect with someone, it’s essential to be aware of how our minds and bodies behave. “The more self-awareness we have, the more we will have the ability to be observant and communicate with other people,” says life/business coach Ellie Gordon, a trained psychotherapist and founder of the $60 million-a-year hosiery business, Hot Sox.
Like any muscle in the body, being observant means practicing and developing the following skill-set:
Take the person in, says Gordon. Be mindful of their body language. Mirroring the way a person is standing and holding himself or herself is a powerful way to build trust and understanding. It makes the other person feel comfortable and listened to, whether they’re a grandchild telling you about their first day at school or a coworker talking to you about a recent business meeting.
- Eye contact
The ability to maintain eye contact is an important influential tool that conveys emotion, builds connections and indicates interest, according to a Michigan State University study. Moreover, people who avert their gaze are often seen as untrustworthy.
Looking someone in the eye rather than glancing around the room or at your cell phone is the easiest—and sometimes hardest—way to maintain your focus. The key is to maintain an appropriate amount of eye contact—50 percent of the time when speaking and 70 percent of the time while listening.
“Being present with somebody who gives you the space to talk and share yourself with them tends to create a bond and good feelings,” says Bennett. However, listening doesn’t mean just being physically quiet. It means quieting your mind and genuinely listening to what the person is telling you. Unfortunately, many of us are poor listeners due to the simple fact that we can think faster than we can speak.
While most of us speak at a rate of 125 words per minute, the human mind is capable of understanding someone speaking at 400 words per minute, according to research by the University of Missouri. Hence, we’re only utilizing 25 percent of our mental capacity, leaving the remaining 75 percent to focus on bills, vacation, work or anything else that pops into our mind at any given moment.
“It takes focus and a concerted effort to say, ‘I’m not listening to that universal drone in my head,’ says Gordon. When your mind wanders, people notice, and it takes away from the authenticity of the conversation.
Empathizing with someone is really having the ability to understand the “humanity of a situation” and knowing what it means to be in the other person’s shoes.
Being understood is a vital part of interpersonal communication. When we truly feel listened to, in the emotional sense of the word, we feel more satisfied with our relationships, according to Bodie’s research. What’s more, people who have a high EQ—emotional intelligence—are capable of making better decisions simply because they have the capacity to see a situation from someone else’s perspective.
“It’s not listening to the story in your head,” said Gordon. “It’s seeing into the hearts of others. The richness and depth of where you can go with each other is actually profound.”
Beyond all this, there are technical tricks of the trade you can use to pay attention, like repeating a person’s name or even the words they use. Both of these things convey that you’re listening, says Bennett. But, overall, the key to paying attention is being authentic.“It’s the combination of a quiet mind and an honest intention to listen to the person that you’re interacting with. It’s hard to think of anything that’s much more powerful than that,” he says.