On Active Listening and Mental Fatigue

I’ve recently become interested in active listening due to some internal projects on the subject at work. People, especially today, mainly engage in passive listening. We hear the other person’s words but not their message. Mainly, we’re simply waiting for our turn to speak without even weighing the other person’s arguments, opinions, and points. This makes for poor conversation at best and misunderstanding and conflict at worst.

Active listening provides a solution. It’s defined by MindTools as “a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.” In order to be a good active listener, you must pay careful attention to the other person. But this can be really hard in a world of constant distraction (i.e. stop checking your Facebook notifications on dates or immediately forming your own points rather than paying attention). It’s obvious when you aren’t paying attention and it ultimately contributes to a lack of mutual understanding.

However, active listening takes a huge amount of cognitive energy. Ultimately, it’s not sustainable for huge amounts of time. As I’ve discussed previously, human beings have a finite amount of cognitive energy and expending it causes us to suffer decision fatigue: “research points to the notion that human beings have a limited amount of psychological energy that they must ration out. For this reason, we see phenomena like ‘ego depletion’ and ‘decision fatigue’ taking place. The former refers to diminishing self-control and willpower after one exerts a great deal of self-control and will. The latter refers to the declining quality of decisions after a prolonged period of decision-making.”

One of the biggest venues meriting active listening is the classic corporate meeting. To actually create efficiency, people must actively listen in order to get things right the first time. However, people can only listen for so long, which means that meetings that run past a certain time limit create passive listening instead of active listening. The optimal human attention span is about 20 minutes give or take 2, which is why TED talks are capped at 18 minutes. Ideally, meetings would be scheduled in blocks of 15 minutes rather than blocks of 30 – 60 min. Ultimately, for firms to be most efficient, they should cut down on the frequency and duration of meetings so that people can actively listen during the mission critical ones.

This infographic shows the ideal number of minutes that presentations should be in 4 different online mediums. People tend to stay engaged for about 20 minutes.

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