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Getting Along by Lawrence J. Cohen - A bi-weekly column in The Boston Globe

2/27/2003 - Few of us are really good at listening

When was the last time you paid attention to someone? I mean really gave your complete and undivided attention to another person.

It's actually not all that common, or that easy, because we usually reserve at least half our attention for thinking about what we're going to say next, or for thinking about something unrelated. We may stop listening altogether, because we think we already know what the other person is going to say, or because we aren't interested. We fill in the gaps where we stopped paying attention based on what we expected or wanted to hear. As soon as we've heard enough for our own purposes, we tend to tune out, instead of tuning in to the person's deeper feelings and unspoken words.

Some people do truly listen, of course, instead of just saying ''uh huh, uh huh,'' while mentally making their grocery list or looking around surreptitiously to see who might be more interesting to talk to. These good listeners don't just hear our words, but sense some of the things we are trying to communicate that we can't quite put into words. They also let us know that we've been listened to, even if they disagree with us.

For the most part, however, the state of the art of listening is pretty sad. Even sadder, the people who are supposedly listening to us are doing the same thing with the better half of their brains that we're doing with our attention when we're supposed to be listening to them.

Unfortunately, the media messages that surround us, bombard us, and clamor for our attention don't help at all. The advertising industry has become incredibly good at grabbing people's attention, which makes it even harder for us to have any leftover attention for one another.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read my A.Word.A.Day e-mail, an electronic newsletter about words and language put out by a guy named Anu Garg (to subscribe, go to wordsmith.org). Writing about corporate names, Garg noted how absurd it is to pay a company extra for a shirt or hat that brandishes its logo, which he calls inadvertent advertising.

''The word `advertise,' '' he says, ''comes to us from Latin advertere meaning `to turn toward' or `to pay attention.' The word `inadvertent' derives from the same source. In other words, by not paying attention, we ARE paying attention.''

Since corporations and marketers are so good at attracting attention, maybe we are hoping that when other people pay attention to the advertisement we are wearing, they will pay a little attention to us, too. It's hard to compete with ads, however, since most of us don't walk around with an entourage of perfect-looking models or an orchestra playing a soundtrack.

Without all that glitz to grab hold of people's attention, we have to rely on other people wanting to listen to us. That isn't very reliable, so we don't usually wait very patiently. Indeed, most of us are so eager to be listened to that none of us is willing to be the first to listen. As with so many things in the world, it would all work better if we just took turns.

People often let out a big sigh of relief when they finally get the chance to take turns listening and being listened to, instead of having the usual ''conversation'' where everyone is competing so hard for a turn that nobody gets one. Even the person who gets to speak doesn't really get a turn, because at that point, everyone else has gone back to thinking of how they are going to win the next round and say their piece, or else they have tuned out completely.

As a therapist, since I make a living listening to people, I probably shouldn't reveal this secret, but there actually is not a shortage of attention in the world, even though most of us often feel as if there is. There would be plenty of attention to go around if we just took turns listening to one another, paying close attention to someone else so they can pay us back by giving attention to us. In order for this to work, each person has to get a full turn, which requires giving the other person a full turn as well. If you aren't going to spend the whole night arguing about who gets to go first, this method of turn-taking takes a lot of trust - and a lot of listening. But it's worth it, in order to break that old habit of half listening or not listening at all.

Maybe I should make up some billboards and TV ads about this idea, so people will pay attention to it!


Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com