Research from the Associated Press shows*: The average attention span in 2012: 8 seconds The average attention span in 2000: 12 seconds The average attention span of a goldfish: 9 seconds Clearly, we've got an attention span problem in our culture.
And considering that the majority of us spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours communicating, what kind of communication is actually happening every day with such short attention spans?
Think about this for a minute. The ability to communicate and be present with each other is one of the most important things we learn as humans. Dr. Jack Bennett, a life coach who explores happiness, behavior change, and personal development, emphasizes, “Giving someone our full, undivided attention is fundamental to our business and interpersonal relationships."*
The outcomes are hugely significant. Effective communication creates a bond of closeness, reduces conflict, enhances personal and professional relationships, and in many cases, helps you get more of what you want out of life.
But, when faced with the chance to listen to what someone has to say, to tune in and "be present," most of us are falling short. We're busy thinking about ourselves, what we're going to say next in conversations, or our errands, our work or in so many cases, we're busy focused on electronics. We're simply not paying attention.
Graham D. Bodie, professor of communication studies at The Louisiana State University, in extensive research about outcomes to paying attention, reveals that people who are good listeners are more liked, rated as more attractive and garner more trust than those who are less proficient at listening. They are also high academic achievers, have better socio-emotional development, and are even more likely to get promoted at work. Fairly significant outcomes, I'd say!*
So with all this research reinforcing the importance of paying quality attention to each other, why do we do so little of it? Why have we allowed our attention span to decrease through the years rather than increase? Why is our emotional intelligence more stunted than ever before in spite of being confronted with more information about what it takes to live mature, effective, and healthy lives? Why is our communication ability so poor? Do we simply not know how? Or are we so self absorbed and lazy that we refuse to engage in the work?
Four Secrets to Paying Attention Well
Here are four things to work on that improve our attention capabilities.
Observe - Eye contact - Mindfulness - Empathize.
Choose to observe - notice the other person. What is their body language saying? Can you mirror it? What are you seeing about him or her right now? What does that tell you about what they're feeling? What do you observe about your own body language? What feelings or thoughts is that communicating? Communication involves two people interacting together. You can't improve what you don't observe.
Choose to make eye contact. This establishes a connection, a bond, and indicates you're interested. On average, according to experts, the appropriate amount of eye contact is 50% while speaking and 70% while listening. If, as the saying goes, the eyes are the windows to the soul, you pretty much have to notice the eyes in order to connect meaningfully to people.
Choose to be mindful. Effective listening is about not just having your mouth quiet but also your mind quiet. It's keeping yourself from the tendency to be thinking about what you're going to say next or other more pressing issues in order to be "fully present" to the other person. The more you practice mindfulness outside of interpersonal communication, the more you can perform it inside.
Choose to empathize. Here's the way one author puts it: "Empathizing with someone is really having the ability to understand the 'humanity of a situation' and knowing what it means to be in the other person’s shoes."
We all want to be understood and validated. That's what helps us be more fully alive and ourselves. Empathy from others gives us that gift. You can give it, too.
"When we truly feel listened to, in the emotional sense of the word, we feel more satisfied with our relationships. What’s more, people who have a high EQ—emotional intelligence—are capable of making better decisions simply because they have the capacity to see a situation from someone else’s perspective." (Dr. Graham Bodie) *
There's A Price For Not Paying Attention
The Bay area news reported recently on a young university student who was riding the MUNI when a complete stranger suddenly shot him as he began to exit from the train. The MUNI cameras recorded the whole situation.
What made the event even more tragic was that the perpetrator had his gun out in the open for a long time while standing there on the train, even using it to scratch his nose at one point. But no one noticed it. In fact, no one even noticed the entire exchange. As the cameras so blatantly recorded, everyone in that car had their heads down, eyes glued to their phones and tablets. They simply weren't paying any attention to anything other than themselves.
We're living in a culture that is becoming increasingly self absorbed. Our human connections are paying a price. Communication is being stunted and more and more ineffective. People just aren't listening and paying attention to each other in meaningful, healthy ways.
But we can choose to be different. We can choose to pay attention. We can choose healthy and effective communication with each other. We can practice and learn.
* This reference and several of the research reference points are thanks to Ashley Neglia, "The #1 Skill of Extremely Likable (and Successful) People" (Grandparents.com, 9/26/2013)