I was at an event yesterday where the participants were asked to do a listening exercise. We got into pairs and one person had to talk for two or three minutes while the other listened, and the listener was supposed to just hold eye contact, without any nodding or providing facial/verbal cues of any kind.
(A brief aside to state for the record how much I hate the partner up! request when it comes to group activities. I suppose there are some people who simply turn to the person next to them and raise their eyebrows, like SHALL WE DANCE? and everything’s great, but for me I find myself facing dead ahead while I desperately try and scan for a sense of receptiveness from whoever’s nearest and when I finally summon enough courage to orient myself in their direction I feel like everyone else has instantly made a new best friend for life and is in the midst of exchanging phone numbers and pricking their fingers to become blood bonded while my person and I are making that emoticon face with the perfectly flat mouth and saying things like “Uh…so.”)
Most people agreed that it was extremely difficult to listen without providing any sort of response. For me it felt not only robotic, but sort of creepy: I was highly aware of the eye contact, and as the seconds ticked by I felt more and more like I wasn’t just delivering a neutral gaze, I was boring holes into her skull with my unflinching eagle-stare. Then I kept losing focus on what she was saying because I was distracted by the effort of not nodding or smiling or crumpling my face sympathetically or any of the things I normally do when I’m talking to someone.
It wasn’t much easier to be the person doing the talking. Afterwards, the instructor said how she believed that talking to someone who’s not offering any distractions in the way of feedback allows someone to get deeper into what they’re saying, but I felt like it was the difference between engaging in a conversation and delivering a speech. Not even a speech, actually, because at least you might get a chuckle from the audience at some point — this was more like reciting the night’s specials to a couple who was masking their impatience (I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE BAKED ORANGE ROUGHY) with blank facial expressions.
The whole point of the exercise, at least if I understand it correctly, was to highlight how we can be better listeners by not allowing our own biases and opinions and conversational tics to distract or influence the person we’re listening to. The general end goal makes sense, but if we were being asked to demonstrate best-practice social engagement, I want nothing to do with it. I mean, I find human interactions challenging enough without taking everything encouraging out of the picture. Without the nodding and smiling and face-wrinkling and “Uh-huh”-ing, you know what you’ve got? A phone call, that’s what. A. PHONE. CALL.