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7 Barriers to Active Listening

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.
~Thich Nhat Hanh

listeningEffective influencers master the art of listening, and they understand that people want to be heard.  In our fast-paced world, active and empathetic listening is a rarity, and it’s not as simple as it sounds.  Even if we know how to listen, we often don’t do it for a number of reasons.

Next time you talk to someone, watch for the following seven common listening barriers that block a good conversation flow and may cause misunderstandings:

1. We join the conversation with predetermined attitude and assumptions about the other person or the subject matter to be discussed. Good conversations have the power to create new shared meaning and understanding, but it is only possible if we are open enough to consider those new possibilities.  So many people use conversations just to reiterate their own positions on issues.  Little is gained with such approach.  Instead, join a conversation with an open mind and desire to learn something new.  Listen with curiosity and without bias.

2. We are so preoccupied with our own thoughts that we are unable to listen attentively. Maybe, we are distracted by something unrelated to the topic of the conversation, or we are busy developing our own response and miss what’s being said.  It’s not easy to pay focused attention to the other person’s words.  Our prefrontal cortex, the brain region implicated in planning complex cognitive tasks, decision making, and moderating correct social behavior, is easily overwhelmed.  We can process just about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment.  It makes it impossible to attend to several things simultaneously that require our concentration.  We have to train and discipline our mind to listen actively and push any other distracting thoughts aside.

3. We are completing the other person’s thoughts and jumping to conclusions. How often do we hear something and say to ourselves:  “Oh, I know where she is going with it.”  We attribute ideas, motivation, and intentions to others that they may not have.  This leads to misunderstandings.  This is especially true if we have known the conversation participants for a long time.  We feel like we know what they will say.  Patience pays off in conversations.  Let the others finish their thoughts and don’t assume you already know what they are going to say.

4. We engage in selective listening. It occurs when we listen only to what we want to hear.  We like to be right, and our minds like consistency.  We don’t feel comfortable when something upsets our belief system.  It’s easier to ignore that information. The downside is that we can’t learn from others or collaborate effectively.  To overcome the habit of selective listening, paraphrase or mirror back what you hear to ensure you understand other points of view.  Engage in conversations with people who you know will disagree with you and learn to discuss your disagreements respectfully.  Encourage different opinions with the intention of considering them thoroughly and learning from them.

5. We feel too tired, anxious, or angry to listen actively. Our brains run on glucose.  The glucose levels drop when we are tired, so we no longer have the energy to think clearly.  When we experience strong negative emotions, as when we are angry or under stress, the glucose goes from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala in the limbic system of the brain, responsible for the emotional control and memory of our emotional reactions.  The amygdala triggers the “fight or flight” mode.  As a result, our mind “freezes,” and we  either launch verbal attacks or withdraw from the dialogue.  Strong feelings and emotions affect our listening, reasoning and judgment.  If the parties feel overwhelmed, a better strategy is to take a break from the conversation.

6. We don’t pay enough attention to body language and supersegmentals, such as intonation, rate of speech, emphasis, or tone. We can focus not only on what’s being said, but also on what’s not being said.  The supersegmentals and body language give away clues about people’s emotions, feelings, stress levels that provide additional information that may not be expressed in words.  To be an active listener, you have to be a good observer too.

7. We are in a hurry. We don’t have time to listen and can’t wait for the other people to finish their thoughts so that we could get on with our business. People will sense that you don’t really want to listen to them.  If you find yourself always trying to control the pace of conversations, talk too fast, or urge others to get to the point, try to consciously slow yourself down.  Find a better time to talk.  A conversation is not a race to the finish line.

By | 2011-01-30T02:43:32+00:00 January 30th, 2011|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

Technology and the brain: On clicking, seeking, Massaro shoes, and dopamine

Massaro Shoe

Photo: Olivier Saillanr, © CHANEL

My computer slows down to a halt.  I get impatient.  I start looking for the cell phone. I can check Twitter, and Facebook, and email faster that way.  I can’t find the phone.  Instead, my eyes catch the cover of a coffee table book about luxury brands.  It’s in Russian, and it has beautiful photos. I grab the book and start flipping through the pages in desperation because I feel like smashing the computer.  And here it is, on page 252, this whimsical Massaro shoe…

During his 56-year career, Raymond Massaro has handcrafted shoes for Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor, Claudia Schiffer, as well as fashion houses like Chanel, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and many more.  The Massaro brand began as a family business in 1885.  Raymond Massaro’s grandfather, father and three brothers were all shoemakers.  Massaro had hoped to be a professor of French or history.  His father made him become a shoemaker, and later Raymond Massaro thanked him for that every morning. Because Massaro didn’t have kids, he worked out a deal with his long-term client Chanel for the sale of his business with the right to work there as long as he wanted.

As I study the brain-captivating image, the sense of computer-induced urgency dissolves. The brain is capable of about 8 seconds of focused attention when something distracts us from the current task.  The Massaro shoe does the trick.  It’s almost a meditative experience.  I feel calmer now.  I don’t mind staying in the high fashion world a bit longer.

Why do we feel that sense of urgency around the Internet and our social networks in the first place?  Why are we constantly searching, checking, updating? The answer lies in the fact that our brains prefer stimulation over boredom.  The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns. Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls this the “seeking” system of the brain.  It motivates animals to search for food, and it causes human brains to seek out information, ideas, connections.

When the brain is busy searching and predicting, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the sense of purposefulness and focused attention.  Dopamine is even implicated in our internal sense of time.  So, next time you waste hours clicking and seeking, blame your dopamine neurons.  Interestingly, these neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found.

The fluid world of the web, where information flows fast and novelty rules, fuels the brain’s urge to search.  In Slate’s article “Seeking,” Emily Yoffe writes:

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

We all run through information mazes.  No wonder, it takes a Massaro shoe to pull my attention away from the computer.  And unless your brand has the Massaro shoe equivalent, I’ll just keep clicking.

By | 2010-08-20T00:12:53+00:00 August 20th, 2010|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

Why Bizarre Fashion Ads Grab Attention

It’s been four years since I received Vogue in the mail.  The birth of my daughter, several moves Dolce & Gabbanaand other priorities took time away from this element of self-indulgence.  Nevertheless, I still remember how flipping through those glossy pages made me feel.  Like Carrie Bradshaw proclaimed in “Sex and the City,” spending a leisurely morning with Vogue and a cup of coffee was an experience.  It transported me into the enchanted fantasy world of high fashion, luxury and fun.  Even my Ballard Designs’ antique-white “sawhorse” desk I am sitting at as I am typing this post was inspired by a photo of the 5th Avenue office of some glam psychotherapist.  I remember she had beautiful pink peonies on her desk.  Incidentally, I have pink carnations on mine, presented to me on Mother’s Day.

I also took a professional, linguistic interest in the ads.  During my graduate school years, I explored the language of advertising and motivation, specifically in cosmetics advertising.  So while most people skipped ads, I actually studied them.  It turns out that fashion ads are especially effective at grabbing attention, according to the research by Barbara J. Phillips at the University of Saskatchewan and Edward F. McQuarrie at Santa Clara University.

About a quarter of ads in fashion magazines feature bizarre and grotesque images.  Examples include “a Jimmy Choo ad depicting a woman fishing a purse out of a pool that contains a floating corpse of man, and a Dolce & Gabbana ad that features one beautiful woman in period costume skewering another in the neck.”

Eighteen women participants in the study felt the pull of these ads as they were trying to figure out what was going on in the pictures.  They approached the ads as stories or paintings, evaluating their creativity, colors, and compositions.

It appears that the grotesque ads engaged the participants by fueling their brains’ predictive mechanisms.  Our brains are storytellers.  Their function is to make sense of the outside world so that we could feel more comfortable in it.  Bizarre images puzzled the brains and piqued the women’s curiosity.  The macabre nature of the images triggered enough alert in the brains to evoke a stronger emotional response.  Our brain has evolved to be more sensitive to negative information to protect us from danger.  The grimness has to be subtle, however, because negativity can also ruin the perception of the brand or create negative associations with the product.

“The merely pretty was too easily passed over; grotesque juxtapositions were required to stop and hold the fashion consumer flipping through Vogue,” the researchers said.

Perhaps, we remember better what we struggle to explain, whether in a Jimmy Choo store or in front of a modern painting in an art gallery.  Now, I just need a better reminder to keep my money in my wallet.  Ideas, anyone?

By | 2010-05-15T02:15:18+00:00 May 14th, 2010|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

Brains Driven to Distraction: The Urge to Search

If your typical day feels like a rush of harried interactions and distractions, you are not alone.  TheUrge to Search prevalence of virtual communication makes it easy to leave a conversation mid-sentence as soon as our attention is highjacked by another urgent message.  Although we consider it poor etiquette to engage in multitasking while talking to someone face to face or even over the phone, many of us feel no qualms multitasking when we respond to emails or type text messages.  Mental noise and distractions become routine: unrelated thoughts buzzing in our heads as we are trying to concentrate on a project, ringing phones, interrupting colleagues, urgent phone messages and emails.  Everything and everybody fight for our attention.

Although we often complain about distractions, an honest introspection will force many to admit that we sometimes enjoy this hectic pace of hopping from task to task, from conversation to conversation.  I, for once, feel that my brain is impacted by heavy computer use.  Reading a long article online without succumbing to the urge to tweet about it mid-page takes effort.  I may also be guilty of stealing a glance at the computer screen while talking to my husband.  He usually calls me out for that.

What drives our brains to distraction?  Blame our wired urge to search.

In 2009, The New York Times published an article titled “As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials Are Popping Up,” reporting on the increased number of mistrials as jurors around the country used their BlackBerrys and iPhones to seek information about cases beyond the admissible evidence.  Jurors are prohibited from gathering or sharing facts about the cases outside the courtroom, so judges had no choice but to declare mistrials.  Months of work were wasted as the jurors’ urge to search prevailed over common sense and direct instructions.

Our brains prefer stimulation over boredom.  The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns.  That’s how we learn.  The brain makes sense of the world around us by predicting certain outcomes, comparing these predictions to what actually happens and detecting prediction errors.  Based on this information, our dopamine neurons adjust their expectations, enabling us to learn from our past experiences.

When the brain is busy predicting, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience.  Interestingly, our prediction neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found.

In Slate’s article “Seeking,” Emily Yoffe writes:

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

Distractions provide novelty and stimulation to our brains while maintaining the sense that we can never figure it all out, so the search for meaning continues.

…It feels like it’s time to check for updates on a fan page I frequent.  My brain doesn’t want to miss a thing.

By | 2010-05-06T15:39:41+00:00 May 6th, 2010|Attention|0 Comments