Why Is Listening The Most Important Skill?

This article was originally published in MBA Diversity Magazine.

In many respects, we are living in a golden age of communication.

Using voice-over-IP services such as Skype, we can call potential business partners in Mozambique for less than the cost of a Starbucks coffee. What used to be prohibitively expensive is now an afterthought that the only remaining inconvenience is getting woken up in the middle of the night by someone who cannot figure out the time zone difference.

We can share our vitriolic rants on the current administration for anyone to read on Blogger, network with fellow musicians, filmmakers and scantily clad teens on Myspace, share our harrowing home videos of the Lebanon-Haifa bombings on YouTube, trade business contacts with former colleagues on LinkedIn, gossip about our classmates on Facebook, flirt with a potential life partner on Match, post our raves about a particular film on IMDB, and talk to complete strangers on iChat that we would never meet in the flesh.

At work, we can cc: and bcc: an infinite number of colleagues who need to read the tome we wrote about our “two cents’ worth on next week’s conference call”. Once we have patched all of them through our multi-conferencing system the following week, we can then at the click of a button instantly send pictures taken from our cell phones of our boss picking his nose to everyone else in the office. Actually, scratch that. We can just post the photo on Yahoo!’s Flickr for the whole world to see the chump that we work for.

So much of the interaction we would have conducted face-to-face in the past can now be conducted virtually. We can contact more people than we ever could before – yet we have never felt more alone at the same time.

And perhaps that’s where the dichotomy lies. For all the gadgets and software do-hickeys that surpass any Star Trek geek’s wet dream, maintaining close real life relationships has never been more difficult.

There is no reason, however, to believe that the advent of all these communication tools causes social isolation. Nevertheless, we have a harder time expressing ourselves despite all the communications tools at our disposal. A recent study by Duke University sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin suggests that a quarter of all Americans have absolutely no one to confide in. Not one person to share the good news about a promotion, or to talk about a bad day. Moreover, nearly half of all Americans admit they only have one person to confide in – namely, their spouse (I’m guessing the other half must be divorced). This level of social isolation has doubled over the past two decades.

We have no problems making small talk with the eBay seller halfway across the country, but we have a harder time introducing ourselves to the neighbor living across the street. What used to be considered a social custom twenty or thirty years ago of getting to know your neighbor would now brand you as a “freak” in most cities. We could be living next to the world’s most feared terrorist or an underground meth lab, and never know.

We have thousands of MySpace friends, but fewer and fewer “in the flesh” friends. We spend more time interacting with the clinical form factor of a computer screen than we do responding to the organic reactions of a human face. We’ve learned to become more accustomed to the LOL acronym than the sound of a cackling laugh; we type 😉 more often than we actually smile; we insert emoticons as cheap substitutes for more precise words. At the rate we’re going, we’ll all be emotionally retarded by the time we’re senior citizens when Yahoo! offers a whopping thirteen different emoticons to reflect the breadth of human experience (a fourteenth emoticon was in production, but was discontinued due to cost cutting after a particularly contentious quarterly analyst conference call).

We have hundreds of people in our LinkedIn network, but few professional contacts or mentors we can truly rely on and trust. With Outlook, Blackberry, PDAs, video conferencing and VOIP, we can communicate with colleagues, customers, suppliers and investors across the globe in an instant. But the language of the workplace has never been more full of riddles, double-speak, innuendo and jargon than it is now. Never say what you mean, and never mean what you say – an all-spin zone that would make FEMA blush.

We can deliver our political viewpoints globally on our blogs, but we have a harder time discussing any issue in a civil manner. Never have we been more polarized on virtually every single issue. Communication has become a one-way street (“This is what I’ve got to say!”) rather than a two-way discussion based on mutual respect. We are no closer to accepting or tolerating one another, let alone understanding each other, even though so many viewpoints are just an instant click away.

Thus far, all these communication technologies that media pundits, technologists, venture capitalists, and resident geeks hype as the “great new thing” have only added to the quantity of our interactions, but have done little to improve the quality. And nor should it – the quality is our responsibility. We just mistakenly believe that the technology can do the heavy lifting for us. We can now all speak at the same time, but are any of us really listening? Communicating our views is easy. Understanding each other is hard.

The foundation of any quality human interaction is listening. It’s the bridge that connects us with them. It’s the carpet we roll out for them to walk on. And until we stop talking and start listening, all these technologies are good for is generating more white noise.

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