Are You Really Listening?

With the spread of social media, it can seem as though we’re doing nothing but communicate.  It’s hard not to think however that much of this so called communication is little more than broadcasting.  We do an awful lot of talking on social media, but I suspect we don’t do so much listening.

Does this habit spread into other aspects of our lives, and if so, what are the implications?  It reminds me of something the old philosopher Abraham Kaplan once said.  He coined the phrase ’duologue’, which is when two people are engaged in an apparent conversation, yet neither is paying a blind bit of attention to what the other is saying. 

Talking gibberish

You may think that the very notion of such conversations are outlandish.  I mean we don’t really talk like that, do we?  Well, a recent study suggests that we somehow do, and indeed so pronounced is this, that we often fail to notice when the conversation has descended into complete and utter gibberish.

The research explored the topic of both how and why languages evolved, and it came up with some fascinating findings with implications for how we work together.

The standard rationale for why we converse with one another is that we communicate information to someone else, as faithfully as possible, even if that information is false (i.e. telling a lie).

At least, you’d think that was the case.  The research suggests otherwise however, and found that this attempt at faithful communication of information is the exception rather than the rule.  The study suggests that communicating like this takes a lot of effort, therefore we don’t tend to do it all that often.  Therefore, when the communication is spontaneous, as in a conversation for instance, we’re often completely unaware when it turns into gibberish.

The research asked participants to chat to one another using an instant messaging application.  The participants, who were complete strangers, conversed together whilst sat in separate rooms, so they couldn’t see body language or any other non-verbal cues.

In addition to their conversation, they were asked to spot the differences in colour between two different versions of a cartoon.  The catch was that each person could only see one version.  The participants were also unaware that another pair were attempting the exact same task, albeit on a different cartoon.

As the two pairs of conversations were taking place, the researchers would switch them around, so that the participants would suddenly find themselves talking to someone from the other pair.

During a fifteen minute conversation, this switch occurred four times, with each switch lasting for approximately 30 seconds.  At the end of the experiment the participants were asked to conduct a debrief, during which it would be determined if they’d noticed anything strange happening, or in other words, if they’d been aware of the switch, and the subsequent peculiarity of the conversation.

Did they notice?

Alarmingly, it emerged that between 27% and 42% of the participants had absolutely no idea that their conversations were switched and they were talking with a different person on a completely different topic.  Those people were just babbling on as though nothing had happened!

Suffice to say, talking via instant messenger isn’t exactly the same as talking face to face with someone, but it nevertheless goes to show that many of us are simply happy to blurt our message out, with little to no understanding as to whether it has been faithfully communicated.

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