Are You Really Listening?

I was behind a woman at Williams Sonoma this past week and saw an interaction that I, unfortunately, see all the time.

You’ve seen it, too. The conversation looks something like this:

Woman — “Hi, I’m looking for this roasting pan for Thanksgiving.”
 Store Clerk — “Great. Let me see if we have it.”
 Woman — [Starts looking at phone]
 Store Clerk — “We do have it, it’s just over here. Want me to show it to you?”
 Woman — [Still looking at her phone and not looking up at the clerk]. “No. I’m okay. Thanks.” [Still looking at phone, walking away].

Humans — not being present, not treating others like humans.

I’m not the first to bring it up, but it’s no less a disturbing trend.

What I’d like to add to this conversation, however, is that I’ve often seen this behavior and attitude happen when we think we’re more important than the other person in front of us. It’s not just our growing addictions to our technology. It’s how we create varying levels of value for different people. We don’t say hello to the bus driver, for instance. We think our time, our text message, or whatever “it” is, is more important than that person.

We’re effectively using the other person as a means to an end. We’re using them and not validating them when they are doing a great service to help us — a service no less valuable than what we do in the world. It’s just one more way that we’re not treating the people in front of us as humans.

That bus driver had to go through a bunch of steps to get to that place to give you a ride today.

That barista had to get up at 4am to make sure you had a coffee at 7am.

That person at the front desk is working at their first job and is trying to make your office a great place to be.

But you’re too important to say hello and look up from your phone.

Culture Does as Culture Sees

We see this all the time in the startup world. My fellow venture capitalists treat the startups reaching out to them as a means to an end. Startups reach out for help or advice or (heaven forbid) our money, and we don’t respond to them for a few days because “something else” is more important.

We don’t recognize the fact that that startup just spent the past three weeks drafting an amazing deck for our specific eyes and the past hour working on a perfectly worded email directed to us — specifically.

Generous Listening: Turning the Tide

The big issue here isn’t the phone or our attention. It’s that we feel more important. Or, something we are doing feels more important than that person. And unless we change our attitude and (more importantly) our behavior, we’ll continue to use others.

The best advice I ever got for how to change my behavior about this came from my dental hygienist just a few months ago. (As an aside, she also — unfortunately — told me that I have my first cavity.)

She was talking about how her teenage daughter is often around a bunch of types of kids — some who are very different than her. She’s working on teaching her daughter to love each of those kids well by practicing what she referred to as “generous listening.” Curious, I asked her what she meant by this. She told me that, with each interaction her daughter has, she’s encouraging her to not only listen but “generously listen.” That means putting all electronics away when talking with someone, looking at people in the eye, and asking an intentional question. That question may be, “How are you today?” But it isn’t asking how they are while looking at a phone. It’s: “How are you today?” As a generous listener who actually cares about the human she’s talking to.

One of the ways I’ve been trying to put this into practice is switching on the “Do Not Disturb” feature on my phone so that I’m no longer getting notifications in the midst of important discussions (and every discussion is important when it comes to how I show up). I want to be fully present with the human sitting across from me.

I’m also responding to a startup in search of funding in a reasonable amount of time. I’m intentionally getting back to them in no more than two days, not ignoring them — as though we’re not equals. I’m working to respond increasingly quickly and appropriately…and with kindness.

Finally, as I walk into our office building, I’m not on my phone. I’m saying hello to Vicki, the human at the front desk.

While these are a few of the ways I’m trying to be better at treating humans like humans, there are a ton of other ways, and I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Shoot me a tweet (@rileypat) and tell me how you generously listen.

Because if this teenager can be a generous listener, I’m sure we can all can be.

Originally published at on November 15, 2017.