Mind the gap

Why do we get distracted when we are listening to someone speaking?

Why are we so quick to respond to a question or to offer our opinion? When, on reflection wish we had said it more clearly, added more detail and depth, or just remained silent and thought about our response before speaking?

We can speak at around 125 words per minute. We hear and understand words at around 450 words per minute. (Hence why we can listen to podcasts or videos at up to twice the normal speed.)

This means that even when we are focussed on listening to the speaker, we can get easily distracted. They say a word that triggers our distraction, e.g. ‘cinema’ or ‘football’. Or a thought that enters our head, e.g. ‘What shall I have for dinner tonight?’ or ‘I need to remember to call my boss’. Whatever it is, we have stopped listening and we need to get back to what the speaker is saying.

One way to return to the speaker is to focus on our breath. As we return, begin to notice the person speaking, their facial features, their eyes, if they are relaxed, uncomfortable, where are they looking, etc. All of these small pieces of information, added to their words, help us to form a more intimate picture of the person in front of us. Whilst we are listening with our ears, we are also seeing them with our eyes, sensing them with our intuition, connecting to their heart, and so much more. We may be fully ‘seeing’ this person for the very first time, even though we have ‘known’ them for many years. (This happened during one of my workshops, with two very colourful people, resulting in them both shedding a few tears together and finishing the exercise with a wholehearted hug.)

Recently though, I realised that there is an even more profound angle on the speed of speaking and understanding, this time how it relates to the speaker.

Typically, in a society that values the speaker and talking, there exists an unsaid competition for speaking first, most and longest. In order to compete, we need to learn to compose our thoughts, wait for the speaker to draw breath or sort of finish, all at the expense of our fully listening. (I say sort of, because it is very rare for a person to be given the time to actually finish speaking) The moment they stop speaking, we immediately speak, unless of course someone else is even faster than us!

Quite often, sadly, we will assume that we know what the other person is going to say, and we interrupt them with our point. As we are speaking, someone then interrupts us. The stress in the room rises, as it would do in competition, and so it goes on. Because we are stressed we experience the fight or flight response, at which point the quality of our thinking diminishes.

In much the same way as the listener is able to listen and understand at c450 words per minute, the speaker also thinks at the same rate. However, they are only able to speak at c125 words per minute. This means there are probably another c325 words that have been thought, but not fully expressed at that time.

Could we give them more time to think and to speak?

When the speaker is stressed, as in a ‘competition’, the words that are said are likely to be those words that are the simplest and quickest to formulate, a sort of path of least resistance. “I need to get my words out fast and out now, as I am almost certainly going to be interrupted or my moment taken away when I draw breath or finish a sentence”. In that stressful situation, speaking without real thinking is all we are capable of doing.

Now imagine an environment that is supportive of people being heard, through individuals actively listening to the speaker, things would change dramatically. When the speaker reaches the end of a sentence, pauses for breath or even stops for a moment to think, if they are not interrupted and instead encouraged to continue speaking, there is a good chance the remaining c325 words will be spoken.

Even better, when it is your turn to speak, imagine how you might feel if you too were given time to think before speaking, and know you will not be interrupted.

In my experience when people are first learning the above approach, they expect it to take too long for everyone to think, speak, and fully listen. Whilst I agree that in the early stages of breaking these old patterns, time taken in conversation is longer. However, very quickly the quality and depth of the conversation improves, the time taken reduces, which makes the effort all worthwhile. All involved in the conversation begin to feel heard, feel valued and feel that they matter. And we would all like that, wouldn’t we?

“To be interrupted is not good. To get lucky and not be interrupted is better.  But to know you will not be interrupted allows you truly to think for yourself’.  Nancy Kline Author of Time to Think and More Time to Think

My special thanks to Nancy Kline and her fellow Time to Think facilitators, whose thinking has been fundamental to many aspects of my own thinking and way of being.

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