Skimming the surface of conversations for relevant content is all anyone seems to have time for these days. Rapidly filtering to keep pace with the deluge of messaging around us seems to be the latest development in communication skills. Being able to quickly extract from short sound bites and texts essential informational bits while concurrently determining the message’s impact, is valued by both business and society today. The best of communication is valued for its brevity and efficiency.

One might say that our participation in communication has transitioned from more of a “thinker” role into more of a “processor” role. While an exchange of ideas does occur, conversations seem shallow and transactional when the sending of and receiving of basic ideas is all that communication is. As the pace of life speeds up, true dialogue skills and the nuances–the depth, complexity, and joy—of communication, take a back seat.  At times, we are too rushed to chew through ideas, consider alternate perspectives, and explore and appreciate profound thoughts. There isn’t often time enough to just “sit with the facts” and let them sink in. When societal pressures set expectations for instantaneous response to everything communicated, I think that, regrettably, life at such a hurried pace leads to missed opportunities, assumptions, and a general deterioration of the fabric of conversation. 

To listen means to convey honor and worth

A great deal of communication boils down to being a good listener. A good listener pays close attention to what the other person is saying, listening with no other intention than that of listening. The listener chooses with a conscious effort to give the speaker an opportunity for the listener’s undivided attention without time restrictions or other distractions. In the words of P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility, a good listener realizes that “when I show you that you are worthy of my attention, I am acknowledging and honoring your worth.” Honoring another while listening means putting the thoughts, feelings, and concerns of others before our own thoughts, feelings, and concerns. It involves giving space enough in back and forth dialogue for someone to share a bit of themselves fully, without interruptions in the verbal exchange. “To be civil—to behave, that is, in a manner that takes into consideration the feelings and comfort of others,” explains Forni, “means practicing the art of giving.” When done properly, listening is not about us, but about being present in the moment of the other person, being giving of your time and attention and being sensitive to their needs. 

Disregard stems from ineffective “listening” 

“We are ineffective listeners,” Forni shares, “when we let our past experiences interfere with the attention we should give to our present moments. For instance, we often let what we already know—or believe we know—of others alter our perception of what they are telling us at this very moment, in this unique set of circumstances.” If we jump to assumptions and conclusions about what someone is trying to say before they have had a full chance to say it, then we cannot say we are listening at all, really. A selfish need to get to the point of it all, to see “what’s in it for me”, and to provide a prompt reciprocal reaction indicating “message received”, trumps considerations for hearing the fullness of the conversation. To disregard another’s thoughts and proceed with conversation anyways is, unfortunately, one of the most common patterns used in verbal exchanges today. Forni explains that “when we listen with the future in mind, we are focused not on the speaker but rather on the outcome of our verbal exchange. We let the pursuit of our own goals take precedence over everything else.”

Broken relational skills contribute to the deterioration of the fabric of conversation

When we are no longer thoughtful and considerate of others in communication, we no longer deliver our thoughts with class and civility. When we no longer respectfully follow the conversational rules and mannerisms that allow for us to question gently and gracefully what was said and to clarify viewpoints, we learn very little about views other than those we already hold. When we interrupt–when “we can’t sit still—and silent—as someone else speaks, for we feel the urge to seize the limelight for ourselves.” Forni explains, “we rudely push others off stage” and we contribute to the continual deterioration of our relationships, which undergirds the fabric of conversation. Empathy and respect are often lost. We leave the conversation with thoughts and ideas left unsaid and we feel poorly about our interactions. If this happens frequently enough, social skills become lost or underdeveloped. If discussion breaks down and time is not taken to acknowledge unintentional hurt and efforts to change communication styles are not made, the art of conversation, the give and take of sharing ideas, becomes merely transactional. “Yes, sometimes we feel lost because of the dizzying amount and variety of information readily available in a world enveloped by the uninterrupted buzz of the electronic media,” Shares Forni, “but we need not succumb to bafflement, indifference, or despair,” instead we need to slow the pace of life and re-learn how we listen to others.

In slowing down and taking the time to consider all the facts, seeking the understanding of others and wrestling with the complexity of ideas, we grow in our thinking and progress beyond just the value of efficiency. I truly believe that if we weren’t so hurried, so overwhelmed, so stressed and so pressured to respond to every communication, our conversations and responses would hold so much more meaning. If we are intentional in restoring the missed opportunities, correcting assumptions, and dedicated to holding quality, civil conversations, many of the troubles we see today, including a lack of respect for others, misunderstandings made by jumping to conclusions about others, and incivility itself, might actually diminish or disappear. 

By Kerry Tay McLean, University of Colorado Boulder, Ombuds Program Administrator