Sure You Hear…But Are You Listening?

August 22, 2011

When I was a kid, I was notorious for multitasking. I say multitasking sarcastically here – truth is, I was simply not paying attention to what was going on around me. I’d be playing, reading, watching tv, antagonizing my brother, leaving a trail of toys, books and whatever else I got my grubby little paws on behind myself. I thought I was doing a bunch of things at once; the truth is, I was doing a bunch of things one after the other after the other, not really putting my whole heart into any of them. (I’m sure my brother was happy about that, at least…)

No doubt you’re wondering where I’m going with this, correct? I have a point, I promise! Think about being a kid. Think about the hundreds of things you’d do a day. Think of how you’d attempt to get your homework done at the same time you watched tv. Were you really getting it done as well as you could have been, or was the tv a distraction you would have been better off without? When you played a game that required imagination, would it have been as interesting if you’d tried to sing a song at the same time?

Probably not.

I recently watched a TED talk in which the speaker said, “Multitasking is a myth. It’s a fictional, made-up thing.” When I heard that statement, a little lightbulb went off inside my over-stimulated brain. Consider it for just a moment…truly consider it. The human brain is simply not built to do more than one thing at a time, cognitively. We’re not computers, we’re humans. Yet we live in a world where every single day we ask our brains to perform a function that it simply cannot do….and then we label that impossible action multitasking. Because our brain simply doesn’t possess the ability to do what we’ve asked it to, we flit from item to item, topic to topic. Maybe it’s done so quickly that we don’t realize that’s how it works, but it is. Our brain isn’t doing all of those things at once – it’s doing them concurrently. We like to pretend they’re all at once, but they’re just not.

Okay, so what does this have to do with hearing versus listening, you ask? Everything. Let’s say a customer walks into your store or office. You’re likely in front of a computer, you’ve got a telephone, a cell phone, there are people milling about. When that customer or client starts talking to you, you hear them; but are you listening? If your answer is “Of course I’m listening!”, consider this: Are you still typing? Are you reading your monitor? Are you paying attention to who’s walking by? Are you thinking about that project due at the end of the day? With the pace of business today, it’s highly likely that you could answer “yes” or at least “partially” (be  honest!) to at least one of these questions – or to something else that’s a distraction around you. This brings me back to my initial point; you believe you’re multitasking, when in fact what you’re doing is hearing without listening.

Food for thought, isn’t it? Now you’ll have to excuse me…I have some listening to do.

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