On Millennials, Conversation, and Listening Skills

leadership-millenials-training-at-workI received from my Mother, recently, via a seemingly endless string of Forwards (as one does), an email with the Subject line “The Death of Conversation.” It was a more or less inoffensive collection of one-panel cartoons generally harrumphing about These Kids Today and Their Cellphones These Days, with the predictable overarching theme that nobody talks to each other anymore because welp they’ve just got their faces buried in their phones—which is kind of hilarious, really, since Mom texts me from her own phone on the regular, and now that she’s gone and picked up an iPad? Yeah. That too. (I didn’t reply. Didn’t want her to trip and fall down in the middle of the street when she picked up her mail. On her phone.)

So, about this tendency some of us (old enough to remember when M*A*S*H was still on TV in its first run) have to get grumbly about these kids today and being constantly glued to their devices, man

If they aren’t having conversations, well, then, what exactly do we think they’re doing on those devices? Texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, the lot; those are just spaces where communication is happening, instantaneously, all day long. The fact that it isn’t happening eye-to-eye, face-to-face, doesn’t make it any lessconversation. Could be our definitions of “conversation” need to catch up with the ways we have it in 2016 and beyond.

Which leads me to…

Listening: We Don’t Just Do It With Our Ears Today

When I took my three-day Leader Effectiveness Training course, my cell phone was adorable. I think it was gold. It flipped open like a Star Trek communicator (because of course it did.) It sat in the bottom of my purse, a silent unseen servant, and I didn’t give it a second thought.

If I were to take L.E.T. today, I’m certain that convincing some participants to place their smartphones out of sight and out of mind would present the very first real-world case study in using some of the skills taught in the course. Convincing people to put their phones away is a major challenge. Most of us feel we have to be instantaneously available at all hours now, and that certainly includes during immersive training on communication skills…right?

  •  “I can’t be out-of-touch with my team for three days.”
  •  “I have to be available for emergencies.”
  •  “What if something really important comes up?”

One of the most useful concepts I learned during my three days of L.E.T. is the Behavior Window. And in a highly interactive course designed to teach communication methods, in which everybody is expected not only to fully pay attention, but actively participate, if somebody’s distracted by eyes half-glued to a phone screen, that falls into the area of the behavior window where there’s a problem. A phone parked on a desk or the table during active training is a phone that’s being listened to, just as much as the trainer. And as the trainer, if I see one of my learners surreptitiously glancing under the table every few minutes, it’s distracting to me and to the other learners. That person’s behavior is outside my area of acceptance. I own the problem, and now it’s time for me to confront.

(Interestingly, I asked my friend Michelle who has the harder time letting go of the alleged electronic tethers during training—“those darned kids today” or us finger-wagging Children of the Former Century. Surprise! Children of the 80s? Put your phones away.)

But What Does This Mean for Active Listening and Conversations That Aren’t F2F?

Can you use the skills learned through three intensive days of face-to-face, classroom-based training to improve conversation that isn’t even happening in real time?

Of course you can.

The skills and practice gained in the classroom are essentially basic training—total immersion, designed to plunge you into communication worst-case scenarios and learn to shift gears, think on your feet and react in real time.

With the luxury of additional time to breathe, think, and de-escalate, written conversations like email and texts actually allow me more space to “active listen” than I could ever have hoped to have in tense face-to-face situations.

Long story short: No, conversation isn’t dead.

It’s just happening on screens a lot more than it used to, and that’s OK. Because more and more of my friends (all over the world!) live in a tiny little screen, and I get to see them and talk to them more every day in 2016 than I ever could have hoped to when I was a kid in the 4th grade, begging Mom for a stamp so I could send a letter to my pen pal who lived in Wyoming.

That pen pal and I are now Facebook Friends and we have conversations a few times a week. (I texted Mom to tell her when Pen Pal and I found each other on Facebook. She texted back, “Neat!”)

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