Works in Progress - Autumn 2017

Listen Up

Five questions about the future of communication

By Celeste Headlee | September 5, 2017


Celeste Headlee is the host of On Second Thought, a radio show produced by Georgia Public Broadcasting, and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. We asked her to pose several questions about the future of communication.

1. Data from the International Smartphone Mobility Report show that most American adults spend nearly half an hour texting each day and only six minutes talking on the phone. And yet, none of the recent platforms—text message, Twitter, Facebook, email—can match the pure expressive power of a phone call. The voice is so emotive that engineers in Japan devised a system that can detect fatigue in a pilot’s voice 10 to 20 minutes before the pilot feels tired. Given how averse we are to talking on the phone, how will we express subtle shades of meaning and nuance to each other when communicating more and more remotely?

2. Our resistance to information we don’t like is well researched and documented. In a study at Stanford in the 1970s, scientists noted that even when the participants’ beliefs had been completely refuted, people didn’t change their underlying assumptions: the facts had little to no effect. We know now that there are some things about which we’re perfectly willing to change our minds (chicken needs to be cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees to be safe) and some about which we refuse (climate change is real). My interest is in getting people to hear and understand opposing viewpoints, to keep an open mind and allow others to speak their piece. So, what will make us less resistant to differing opinions? How can we advance beyond forming opinions quickly, based on little evidence, and holding tightly to those opinions in the face of overwhelming fact?

3. We can’t seem to put down our smartphones. Here’s a startling statistic: more people in the world have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. And yet, most people recognize that cell phones interfere with good conversation and healthy relationships. Seventy percent of women say cell phones have had a negative impact on their relationship with their spouse or partner. (FYI, if you think you’re addicted, there’s a test for that on the website of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.)  What keeps us staring at our phones, responding to digital posts, instead of interacting with the living, breathing human being standing in front of us? And will our relationships deteriorate more in coming years?

4. Most people think they are good listeners; it’s others who are terrible at it. Yet scientific research has consistently confirmed that, on average, none of us listens all that well. Our listening skills degrade with age, even as we complain that young people don’t listen. Research shows that 48 hours after listening to information, we remember only about 25 percent of what we’ve heard. So how can we get that percentage up? How can we become better listeners?

5. Part of the reason we struggle to listen is that our minds move faster than our mouths. We can speak about 125 words per minute, but could potentially listen to up to 450 words per minute. Our brains are filling in the rest of those words, and the risk is that we become distracted by all that extra activity going on inside our skulls. What’s the best way to train ourselves to stay focused?

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