The Faithful Servant - One step to being a better listener: Put down your phone

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‘With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life.’  – Proverbs 4:23

Strong listeners enjoy several advantages in business. Co-workers trust them, employees find them easier to work for, and they have less conflict and better relationships with colleagues over the long haul.

That’s just at the workplace. When it comes to our relationships at home, good listening skills prove even more important.

There are techniques for good listening: using good body language to encourage the speaker, waiting to speak until they’ve finished and providing feedback to demonstrate you have understood what they have said, etc.

However, as it is in so many arenas in life, technique is only a small part of success. Execution is the key. When I have done a poor job listening, it wasn’t because I didn’t know what to do. It was because my wants and anxieties got the better of me.

Being a good listener is a little like being a good long-distance runner or boxer. All the technique in the world won’t do any good if we aren’t well conditioned.

That’s why the Book of Proverbs tells us to “guard our heart” and, rather than follow our emotions, to train and condition them so that we can respond to the world around us in a good way. To do this, the church encourages us to cultivate the human virtues: Wisdom (or prudence) to understand what God wants us to be. Justice to help us recognize how we should treat other people. Courage (or fortitude) to endure difficulty. Self-control (or temperance) to overcome temptation.

If we have these virtues, good listening is natural. If we don’t, the best of intentions will fail us. We might intend well, but without justice, we won’t really care about the other person. Without courage and temperance, our responses will tend to be driven by our anxieties or desires more than anything else.

Participating in the faith formation programs our parish offers is a great way to develop the human virtues. There’s also a simple thing we can do at home to become better listeners. Put down our smartphones.

Yes, smartphones have many good uses. However, they can also wreak havoc on our ability to listen.

The obvious problem with smartphones is that they are distracting. Surprisingly, many people believe that they can look at a smartphone or tablet and listen to a friend or spouse at the same time. When we surf on our smartphone and tell our companion “Don’t worry, I can multitask,” we are right. We are simultaneously looking at our phone and annoying our spouse at the same time. Not the best idea.

Another challenge presented by smartphones is that they provide us an easy way to kill time at any time of the day. This isn’t such a problem if we are stuck waiting in line at the grocery store. But if we are at home, we waste time that could be used to pay attention to our family’s needs.

There’s another more subtle problem with smartphones. Internet marketers and social media companies make millions getting and keeping our attention. Sometimes, they do it with curiosity. However, they also use anger. Provocative headlines on websites and social media are commonplace because they get clicks.

If we have just spent a half-hour reading disconcerting headlines or witnessing arguments between friends on social media, we can’t help but be affected, if only just a little. This kind of low-level anxiety doesn’t put us in the best position to listen.

This doesn’t mean we can’t use smartphones. It just means we need to be smart about it. When we get those precious moments together with family, it’s a good idea to set them in another room. We definitely don’t want them at the family dinner table, and it’s a good idea to put them away at least an hour before bedtime.

This kind of discipline will create space in our hearts for God’s peace to enter. If we are worried about being bored, that’s OK. We can always turn to the original social media, listening to the people we love.

Northwest Catholic - April 2017

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.