There seems to be a deficit of social skills in our post-COVID-19 world. We may have become more adept at digital communication in the past few years, but we're less comfortable with face-to-face interaction.
Media outlets have noted the problem, with stories reminding us that "We’re All Socially Awkward Now
." But we can’t blame the pandemic alone. Research
indicates that a decline in in-person interactions has actually been happening for years, in tandem with a steady increase in online communications.
The pandemic, with its forced isolation and rapid shift to online work and school, intensified this change. And our social skills, which need to be practiced in order to stay sharp, took a hit. A Tokyo-based research company surveyed
thousands of college students between 2019 and 2021 and compared their social skills between their freshman and junior years. They found that the students' ability to build good relationships, cooperate with others, and exercise patience all decreased over that time.
Our social skills may have atrophied, but they are still vital to our health and happiness—both as individuals and as communities. We are social creatures at heart. Communication is a two-way process of talking and listening, but the quieter side is rarely taught and easily neglected. Sharpening our listening skills is an effective—and gentle—way to grow our communication skills and our ability to meaningfully connect with others.
It has important consequences. There are few things in life as meaningful as being heard. This means that if you can listen well, you can give people a gift that has tremendous value.
Most of us tend to focus on what we want to say, and we take listening for granted. Not only that, but almost all of us think our listening skills are above average. Scott D. Williams, a professor of management at Wright State University's Raj Soin College of Business, writes in his Leader Letter
to graduate students: “Almost everyone sincerely believes that he or she listens effectively. Consequently, very few people think they need to develop their listening skills. But, in fact, listening effectively is something that very few of us do.”
Listening is at the heart of any good relationship, and putting some effort into it can deepen each interaction we have with our spouse, our children, or our colleagues. People want to be heard. A study published in the September 2015 edition of the journal Social Neuroscience
found that the perception of active listening actually activates the brain’s reward centers, and study participants rated both their interactions and their evaluators more positively when those people practiced active listening.
On the other hand, most people—even children—are quick to pick up on signs that the person they’re talking to is really focused on something else, like the latest notification that just popped up on their phone. "Active listening" refers to giving the person you are listening to your full attention and showing due attentiveness. It makes the other person feel valued and heard. It’s an important skill not just for therapists and counselors, but for all of us.
Active listening can permeate every aspect of our lives, said Asma Rehman
, a licensed professional counselor and the founder and director of the Grief Recovery Center in Houston.
"By actively listening, we convey to others that we value their thoughts, which strengthens our relationships and builds trust. Moreover, understanding others' perspectives enhances our communication skills, leading to more fruitful conversations,” she told The Epoch Times.
But how do we do it? After all, we are bombarded with distractions at every turn.
A May 2016 study
published by the Association for Computing Machinery tracked the online activity of 40 information workers over two work weeks. It found that the average adult focused on their online activity for only a brief 40 seconds before their attention shifted.
A British study
tracked the online activity of 200 people over the course of one hour in the evening, and found that the participants switched back and forth between devices (including phones, tablets, and computers) an average of 21 times in that 60 minutes.
When we are so quickly and easily distracted, it takes effort to focus on the person in front of us—but we can do it if we try. Listening skills can be developed through practice.
“It begins with devoting our full attention to the speaker and minimizing distractions,” Rehman said.
Good listening starts with not multitasking during conversations. For most of us, that means putting electronic devices fully out of view. A study
conducted at the University of Texas at Austin found that simply having a phone in view and within reach—even when it was turned to silent mode—significantly reduced the participants’ ability to do well on tests. The researchers concluded that “the mere presence of participants’ own smartphones impaired their performance on tasks that are sensitive to the availability of limited-capacity attentional resources.”
If we really want to focus our undivided attention on a conversation with another person, we will put our devices away.
Rehman offered a few more helpful suggestions:
“It's important to focus on the speaker's main points and not get lost in minor details. [And] if something remains unclear, don't hesitate to ask for clarification. Summarizing the speaker's points ensures you've understood them correctly. Lastly, responding appropriately can range from giving feedback, offering support, or simply acknowledging the speaker's points.”
For many of us, this requires slowing the conversation down and not trying to formulate a response before the other person is finished speaking.
Giving the other person our full attention, and making an effort to really understand what they’re saying, not only improves communication but also shows care and respect for the person we’re talking with. That's a vital part of every healthy relationship.