Is multi-tasking the enemy of listening?

Is multi-tasking the enemy of listening?

We recently had a reader call to share her response to our series of articles on loneliness in older people. She described how a visit to see her family, instead of providing support and companionship, had in fact left her feeling disappointed and rather lonely. But why?

She explained that the members of her family, of varying ages, had been busy doing other things: tapping away on a phone whilst cooking the lunch; plugged into headphones whilst setting the table; watching TV whilst having a conversation. They had been so busy multi-tasking that they hadn’t had time to look up and listen.

The Campaign to End Loneliness defines loneliness as: “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981).”

A sense of loss

What our reader felt when visiting her family was, perhaps, exactly that: a sense of loss of companionship and a loss of quality relationships. So is multi-tasking the enemy of listening and could making time to listen actively and attentively be key in the fight to combat loneliness?

The loneliness epidemic continues to sweep across the UK. There has been much reporting of it in the media and much hard work done to combat it by The Jo Cox Commission and associated charities such as The Silver Line.

As a result, the issue of loneliness has, hopefully, been brought into our consciousness, but do we need to be more conscious of how the way in which we function in our day to day lives and relationships may be contributing to feelings of loneliness in ourselves and others?

Multi-tasking is exactly as it sounds, the definition being, ‘dealing with more than one task at the same time’. However, some argue that what your brain is really doing is switching between tasks, not accomplishing them simultaneously, and that as a result, the brain becomes tired and individuals become more stressed. It has been suggested that when our brains try to juggle multiple activities and our attention is divided, rather than focused, our ability to perform even simple tasks effectively, is hampered. If this is the case, there is little hope of being able to listen responsively and form meaningful interactions and connections when we are multi-tasking.

We all multi-task sometimes (or at least, think we do): a busy day at work may mean answering an email, speaking on the phone, eating lunch and taking notes all at once; busy mums may have to make dinner, oversee homework and load the dishwasher while stopping the toddler eating raisins off the floor. Of course, there is a time and place for multi-tasking – we all have to get things done! But we must also make sure there is time and space for doing one thing at a time and giving the people closest to us our complete, undivided, uninterrupted attention.

So what can we do to be more mindful of our multi-tasking enemy and stay connected with those who matter? Perhaps the key is in being more aware of what we’re doing – consciously try to make time every day to listen to people: sit at the table and have a meal together; go for a walk together; sit down and have a coffee together; engage in simple, sociable activities that provide time and space to really listen and really engage.

Look and listen

If someone starts talking to you, put down your phone, shut the laptop, close the newspaper, turn off the TV and look at them. Then listen, without letting distractions get in the way. Recognising poor habits and actively making changes to address them is the first step.

In the words of author and psychiatrist, Morgan Scott Peck, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

In today’s modern world of high expectations, high speed and high tech, it can be difficult to slow down and make time to really listen to one another. But this seemingly simple thing, can, in all walks of life, connect and retain relationships and friendships, solve problems and promote companionship and a sense of belonging and wellbeing. Stepping away from multi-tasking and taking time to listen could be a quiet step in the right direction when it comes to tackling loneliness.

By Clare Holway