How to Listen Without Interrupting
Be a better listener and you’ll get more out of every conversation
When it comes to the average person’s attention span, it’s no secret that we are progressively becoming more and more distractable. If you’ve looked into this idea at all over the past few years, you’ve likely heard the very commonly toted stat by companies like Time Magazine and The Telegraph that the average human being’s attention span (8 seconds) is now shorter than that of a goldfish (9 seconds). This stat seems to mark an all-time low in the practice of maintaining focused attention.
I bring this up because as goofy, crazy, or scary as this stat is, I often hear this line or a variation of it quoted as a quasi-excuse for people who have developed the difficult and frustrating habit of interrupting. I myself am someone who trends towards being an “interrupter,” so I know full well the temptation to jump right into the middle of someone’s work, conversation, or quiet. But as I’ve been working on snapping this bad habit, I wanted to share some practices that have helped me start to make the turn from constant interrupter to patient listener.
For those of us who are caught up in the habit of interrupting, I almost can’t blame you. It seems as if our society is built around the concept of one giant interruption. Everywhere we turn, in almost every corner of our lives, we experience one interruption after another. According Thomas Oppong in his piece “How to Stop People Interrupting You When You’re Trying to Work”:
“51.5% of people are interrupted frequently throughout the day,” according to a RescueTime survey. “For half the people we spoke to, interruptions were a constant threat to their focus. With an additional 46.5% saying they get interrupted at least a few times a day,” writes Jory MacKay.
In other words: 51% of people get frequently interrupted every day and 46.5% get interrupted at least a few times. You don’t have to be an M.I.T. graduate to realize that that is nearly EVERYONE. So if you are currently experiencing the vices of the habit of interruption, welcome to planet Earth. Many of us are in the same boat.
There are few things more frustrating than being in-the-flow, the sweet-spot, or the zone and getting interrupted. It’s like having chicken pox and being told that you aren’t supposed to scratch. We’ve all felt this frustration, but somehow, when we are getting ready to be on the other end of the equation and do the interrupting, we seem to forget those deep feelings of anger we’ve previously experienced. Which makes sense considering that we always seem to see our interruptions as totally justified.
But no matter why we interrupt, the simple fact of the matter is that we have to get better at nullifying this practice. Not only will it strengthen our relationships, both personal and professional, but it will actually, in turn, allow us to get more done and be better leaders in all areas of our lives.
So if you’re in this with me, if you want to grow at being someone who can listen without interrupting, here are some practical steps you can start taking to build this habit.
Keep Eye Contact
Not only is eye contact a great sign of respect, but it is very hard to concentrate on what you would like to say when you are focused on looking the other person in the eyes. In our generation, eye contact has become a rare commodity, so when someone has strong eye contact, it says a lot. It shows that you are interested in what people have to say and you aren’t looking off in the distance formulating the perfect interruption.
Keep Lists of Ongoing Conversations
One of the greatest ways to ensure that you can grow in your ability to listen without interrupting is to have ongoing lists where you keep track of what you actually want to talk about. This isn’t something that you do when you are in the middle of listening, but these lists are a tool of preparation that allows you to succeed beyond your normal, pre-determined methods of interrupting whenever a good idea comes to your mind.
I like using Evernote as my list-making tool of choice. As quirky as it sounds, I have different notes of lists of things that I want to talk to people about. Think of it as a to-do list of conversation. This is a starter to become a better listener. You’ll have to read my next article on how to not get sucked into your lists to see how you can avoid allowing this practice to drive you back towards your habit of interrupting.
Assign Levels of Urgency to Your Tasks
One of the greatest elements of good listening is understanding what is truly urgent. The primary reason that most of us interrupt as frequently as we do is that we do not understand the difference between urgent and important. We live in a world that tells us that everything is urgent, so it’s only natural that whenever the spark of inspiration hits us, we immediately think that we have to share it with the world. You can become a 10x better listener by asking yourself this question every time you have a thought you’d like to interject:
Does this need to be shared right now?
95% of the time, the answer will be “no.” If you have to, write this question on a sticky note and put it on your desk, your kitchen fridge, or your bathroom mirror. See it and say it often.
A lot of my desire to get better at listening started for me when I read this quote on a friend’s social media account. He posted:
“Being impressed by your own advice will most likely make you a terrible listener. You’ll only listen up until the point that you have a great idea. Then you’ll interrupt, I mean interject, so that you can share your idol, I mean your wisdom.” — Jackie Hill Perry
For me, a lot of my interrupting can be traced back to this quote above. Being impressed with our own advice is a silent killer. Everyone likes to sound good, and we like to know that other people think that we sound intelligent and wise. But if we allow that pride to camp out in our hearts, we will never be good listeners. We’ll only continue to grow as bad interrupters because we’ll always think that we have something more important to say.
If you want to get the most out of your conversations, if you want to grow in your ability to listen without interrupting, then these are some simple and tangible practices that will help you start down that path.
We are just starting to understand the data behind how devastating constant interruptions can be. You only to do a quick google search to see the dozens and dozens of articles written about how technological and work interruptions are limiting productivity, quelling idea generation, and are disturbing social relationships far beyond what we’ve experienced in the past.
So I say let’s get ahead of the curve. Let’s be the people who listen well. Let’s make eye contact, keep lists, and learn to practice the difference between urgency and importance. Through it all, let’s stay humble because prideful people never make good listeners. We have all the tools we need to start these steps.
Let’s listen well.