And while this can be blamed on any number of things (the proliferation of texting, emails, and IM and the lack of writing in various disciplines), my theory is that another culprit may be part of the issue: we aren't being active listeners. Listening, as we know, is an integral part of communication and being an active listener is even more crucial. Being an active listener, according to the University of Colorado, means "listening and responding to another person that involves mutual understanding" (http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/activel.htm). But many of us simply aren't listening at all, much less engaged in active listening. This means we need to slow down and find ways to better improve our listening skills.
We Don't Listen Because We're Distracted
Part of the reason we're not being active listeners is because we're distracted: we're constantly playing with our phones, listening to our music, doing 10 things on the computer, or talking on the phone. In short, we're allowing technology to distract us from listening and therefore communicating. For instance, in my daily walk to the gym, I pass several bus stops with lots of people milling around. The vast majority of those waiting aren't talking to those waiting with them; instead, they're on their phone, listening to their music, texting, or whatever else. But their heads are bent (I believe future generations will be born looking down), and they're clearly not communicating in any shape, form, or fashion with those around them. And the worst part is that those who are waiting with them are not people whom you'd avoid if you came across in the street. These are nicely dressed, showered working people. My point is that this obsession with communication means that we're avoiding any interaction that might force us to stretch our communication muscles a bit and actually take a chance and talk to that person standing right next to us. We're hiding behind technology. And this is directly impacting our communication and possibly our writing skills.
Emails may be Part of the Problem
Think about it: when we use emails (and I realize that emails are the lifeblood of many organizations and we use them extensively at Hurley Write), we're engaged in passive communication; we're not looking in the other person's eyes, watching their body language, or hearing their tone and inflection. And I argue that because emails are passive, many people don't put much thought into writing and/or planning them. In other words, the writer may not be as concerned with the clarity of the message as she would be if asked to provide an oral presentation, because in an email she doesn't have to deal immediately with that human being who may argue, object, or be confused. That interaction and immediate feedback that's part of the oral message is lost and it's this kind of feedback that forces us to sharpen our communication skills, whether we're cognizant of it or not. Emoticons were invented so that the writers of emails and texts could indicate emotion or feeling; that in and of itself proves my point. With emails, we're not forced to listen and engage.
I'm not a technophobe by any stretch of the imagination, but I am concerned about diminished communication skills that may be exacerbated by an obsession with technology, whether the latest and greatest cellphone or emails. Technology can't listen and it can't communicate, and when we put on our earphones or write emails so that we can avoid speaking with that client or colleague, we're avoiding that active listening and communication which, in turn, weakens our communication skills.
What can You Do?
A few years ago, an employer instituted "no email Fridays." According to one staffer, the policy (which many employees thought was nuts) has "made us more efficient, and we listen to our customers better" (emphasis added). Workforce.com has a couple of good articles on curbing emails, one of which suggests teaching staffers how to write emails effectively because emails, just like computers and copy machines, are tools. Employers can also help improve their staff's communication skills by "disconnecting" them from their technology and providing opportunities for them to interact face-to-face, whether by instituting "no email Fridays," having "technology-free" zones in the workplace, or providing weekly or monthly sessions in which participants just sit around and talk. These small changes could make a huge difference in your staff's communication skills, because your employees would be forced to be an active listener without other distractions. Making your staff more aware of how they communicate and the importance of being an active listener can go a long way toward improving their communication, listening, and writing skills and may enhance your bottom line.
To learn more about being an active listener or different ways in improve your listening skills, turn to Hurley Write for your answers.