Sunday, December 07, 2008

Are you LDD? Why We Are All Becoming Listening Deficient

How well do you listen these days? I mean really listen. Like the kind of listening that the old management books used to tell us to do when meeting with our employees. The door closed, good eye contact, mind focused 100% on the communicator kind of listening.

I have noticed that in the past year or so we have all become a little bit listening deficient. I'm sure you have noticed it too. The most egregious example of "Listening Deficit Disorder" (LDD) I can relate happened while I was conducting a demo a few weeks ago. I was on a phone conference call walking some people through an online demo of Mentor Scout. I was showing them the mentoring profile and talking about some of the different kinds of fields and how we customize the profile for each organization. I was really harping on the ability to customize - too much in fact so I told myself to stop talking and I asked if there were any questions thus far. The first question (and I'm not making this up), "Is there a way that we can customize the items on the profile?" I choked a little bit on my cocoa. That wouldn't have been so bad (I realize that people on demos are looking around at the software and not always following along with me) except that the same woman asked 2 more questions during the demo both of which were items I had just covered. The woman's colleagues were noticeably embarrassed.

Where has all this LDD come from? I think it stems from the following:

- The Internet has taught us all to be excellent skimmers. There is so much information out there on news sites, blogs and forums that we have to skim in order to survive each day. We also skim online because for many of us it is uncomfortable on the eyes/brain to read long, complex articles on a computer screen. (Note: some brain researchers suggest that we use different parts of our brain when we read word images on a screen than when we read words on paper.) Thus we skim. Maybe our visual skimming has taught us some kind of auditory skimming as well. Do you ever half-listen and only tune in if something interesting catches your fancy?

- Our minds are thinking about many things as once. Today, we don't just multi-task tasks. We also multi-task our thinking. I know that some of you can type a post about dogs while thinking about what's for lunch while sitting in a phone conference call and listen to a colleague that has just barged into your cubicle to ask you about something important like what happened on 24 last night.

I notice signs of LDD in more and more interactions and I am guilty of it as well. If I am working on a project or thinking about something and someone interrupts me with a question, a part of my mind stays tuned to my original task (so as not to lose the train of thought?) while I attend to the new issue. While at the time I feel like I'm listening carefully, in hindsight I'm probably not. How many balls can your brain juggle at one time? It takes some time to transition completely from focusing thoughtfully on one topic to another.

Some might say that Listening Deficit Disorder is a helpful tool for working effectively in the new 21st century workplace? I don't think so. A bad case of LDD sets us up for:
  • misunderstandings
  • incorrect conclusions
  • less meaningful discussions
  • a loss of good ideas that come from careful listening and participating
  • time wasting due to the need for repetition
  • frustration both from and toward the person with whom you are half-communicating
  • sending subtle (or not so subtle) messages that you don't care about what the other person is saying
How does one overcome LDD? I suggest making the extra effort to go back to old-school form of listening. Do not multi-task when communicating with others. Drop everything fully, even things floating in your mind, when someone is speaking to you. Give 100% to your listening. Be aware of your mind wandering (starting to skim) and pull yourself back to listening. Make virtual eye-contact with those on the other end of the phone or IM. Show the listener you care and respect them by focusing completely on them. I think that you will find this strategy pays off in both better relationships and greater business success.

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