Why you should stop distracted listening

Why You Should Stop Distracted Listening with Halelly Azulay

Does listening involve just your ears?

Definitely not.

In this short video blog (vlog), I describe the commonly experienced negative effects of distracted listening and why you should stop doing that to people you care about. This advice is crucial for leaders at all levels (but it will also help you in your personal relationships).

Check it out and comment with your thoughts and reactions!


Mentioned in the vlog - the 'threat response' reaction of fight, flight, or freeze. Here's a blog post I wrote about it previously - What the FFF? Or, how to avoid triggering Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses in others.


Halelly: Here’s a quick trivia question for you. Does listening only involve your ears? I want you to think about a great conversation that you had, a conversation that you walked away from feeling very satisfied. Think about a specific conversation. What about that conversation made it so satisfying, so great? What was it like? What was the flow like? What was the environment like? How did the person act? What did they say and do? What did you say and do? Something about that conversation made it different, exemplary, as compared to other conversations, because you thought about it when I asked you to think about a specific conversation that you felt very satisfied about. What about it made it great?

Hi, I’m Halelly Azulay. I’m your leadership development strategist, here at TalentGrow, and this question, this activity, is actually a way that some of my workshops kick off when I teach communication and leadership skills around the country. And then we start digging into what makes a great conversation? And then, my learners start to plan for a future conversation for which they really care about the outcomes. They really have something important that they’d like to accomplish in that conversation. There’s some kind of an impact to that conversation, and they want to make sure that it goes great, that it becomes a great conversation.

Now, usually when there’s something that you really care about and need to talk to someone else about, there’s a potential for misunderstanding, or there’s a potential for conflict or the other person might not see things in the same way as you, or might not even think that it’s such an important conversation like you do. So, it’s something that could be a great conversation, but it will benefit from you planning for it, preparing for it and practicing for it.

So as they start practicing or planning for this future conversation, they start telling me about how they are concerned about how the other person will behave in this conversation. And stories start to come out about some of the people – this may be their boss, someone on their team, a co-worker or even a client – who has in the past shown pretty poor conversation skills. In fact, the number of stories I hear about people’s bosses, who have less than helpful conversation skills is actually pretty staggering. It makes me really sad. At first it used to catch me off guard – why are there so many people who have this problem, and what’s going on?

Now, what are they experiencing? Well, they tell me stories about how the other person is looking down at their phone or looking at their computer or just generally not really focused. Not really connected. They seem like they’re distracted and they’re open to interruptions. I have a little bit of an insider’s perspective about this, because there is someone in my inner circle who tends to have some of these, shall we say, less than perfect listening habits. And when I talk to him, he often does that. He looks down at his phone or he’s looking around, and in general just doesn’t make a lot of eye contact and doesn’t give me the feeling that he’s fully listening. And so when I say, “Hey, is this not a good time?” he often assures me that he’s fully listening and kind of gets annoyed by why I think that he needs to also be looking at me to be listening. And maybe that I should just sort of continue, move on, stop being so focused on it.

Well, here’s the thing – it feels bad. It feels bad to be on the receiving end of distracted listening. I worry, what if he’s missing half of what I’m saying? Which has happened. What if I have to repeat myself? Which has happened. This whole conversation could be an entire charade, an entire exercise in inefficiency. Because science tells us that we’re actually pretty bad at multitasking. Humans are really not very good at paying close attention to more than one stimulus at the same time. So, what ends up happening is we’re actually paying attention to one at a time and then trying to quickly switch between them, which means that there’s stuff that gets lost in translation. So, while these people probably have good intentions, they’re probably trying to multitask in the end. In the end, they’re doing a half-hearted job of both, of listening and whatever it is that has their attention.

This is not so good. But here’s the kicker. Something else we know from science – from neuroscience now, and I’ve talked about this in the past in my blog and in my vlogs, my podcast – is that we actually have a very strong need to feel a social connected in order to feel safe. This is something that’s baked into our primitive part of our brain. It’s baked into our hardwiring and our brain is constantly scanning to make sure that we feel that we are connected in a meaningful way to the people in our close circle, and that we have trust and a feeling of relatedness. And in fact, it’s constantly scanning for what it perceives are threat to that relatedness, to that sense of connection. So guess what? When your brain perceives that the other person is not paying full attention, is not really completely tuned in, is potentially disconnected, your brain starts going into that threat response mode that I’ve described in the past, that fight, flight or freeze mode. And in fact you no longer are having a very effective conversation either when you’re in that mode. But this is something that causes loss of trust, it causes your brain to just subconsciously move into a very narrow thinking, pessimistic, noncreative mode, and this is something that’s bad for conversations and it’s definitely bad for relationships.

So how does it feel when someone gives you their full attention, when they’re listening to you? When they give you that sense that they really are completely focused on you and what you’re saying? I’m pretty sure that this is how the other person listened to you in that conversation I asked you to think about earlier, right? How did it make you feel? It felt pretty great, right? It’s a very reassuring feeling. And when someone is listening to you in a way that is distracted, this is a huge missed opportunity for that person. When we do that to others, we miss the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way. We miss the opportunity to strengthen that relationship, and in fact we’re opening ourselves to the risk of creating defensiveness, discontent, disinterest, discouragement, disengagement, dissonance. I could keep coming up with more words that start with “dis,” but you get the picture. It isn’t the way that we would like to be in our relationships, and our important relationships, is it? So we need to stop it.

The bottom line is, every conversation is a chance to build or strengthen a relationship. But the flipside of that coin is also true. Every conversation also gives you, unfortunately, the opportunity to cause damage in a relationship, and to become disconnected from people who are important to you. So when you listen, it’s important that you don’t just listen with your hearing apparatus, but you need to also give the full visual effect of listening, give your full attention. You need to give your visual cues that you are listening with your eyes, with your face, with your shoulders, with your whole body. And this is something that’s going to cause the other person to feel like they’re having a great conversation with you. They’re worth it, and you’re worth it. Think about it.

If you’ve enjoyed this vlog, please come on over to www.talentgrow.com and sign up for my free weekly newsletter. It is always upbeat and includes a quick tip that you can apply right away, as well as links to my other vlog posts and podcast episodes that I share freely with you about ways to improve your leadership and communication skills. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist, signing off. Thank you for tuning in.

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