Listening: Tuning Out to Tune In

Sometimes you need to go for a walk

Sometimes you need to go for a walk, by: Michael Mongon

The best advice about listening I ever got was from a family friend, John, right before I went to college. As we celebrated his turning 100 and his 67th anniversary, always a fun celebratory week for him and his wife, he still found time to pull me aside to give me advice. He was always excited to see anyone going to college and he told me that he always gave this advice and he hoped that it helped them.

John told me that listening was important but making sure the person you are listening to knows you are listening can be even more important. He went on to explain what he meant. Listening in college meant sitting in the front of the class, even though it might seem, “nerdy,” his words. It wasn’t about having the teacher know who you were, although he was quick to remind me that a teacher in college knowing you were rarely a bad thing, but that it was about if you were active in your attention, even faking it, you would learn more. He also finished it with a laugh about how he never understood why someone would pay ‘good money to learn, then not show up or not pay attention’. To him It was easier, and cheaper to just not go.

The advice is still just as relevant as today. I’ve since taken this advice and extrapolated and modified it a little as I am no longer sitting in large lecture halls. I’ve found that sitting up and being an active participant in a conversation is important if you are going to attend anything. An active participant is making sure you are supporting the conversation if it is two-sided and freeing yourself from distractions if it is not.

Distractions from A Constant Connection

John was around to see cell phones, but modern smartphones were something he didn’t have to figure out. I imagine he would have the same love/hate relationship most of us have with them. They have access to the infinity of information but also turn us into part of that infinite information as someone two who can always be accessed.

Each of us has the potential to be reached out to thousands of times a day if we so choose. We are reached out through emails, social media, friends, and family, all asking and some demanding our attention. Most of the time this connection seems timely but it rarely is. The unfortunate truth is there always is a mattress sale a weekend away.

This is where you get the two sides that usually come in when it comes to active listening. It’s pertinent to the workplace and even more so in your personal life. You have the one school of thought that says, to close all laptops and turn off all devices or you aren’t participating. You have the other side that says to step out if it’s important. Both agree that to take a call or look at a message while you are with something else is wrong.

I propose that to be able to be an active listener today, you need to set a communication strategy for yourself. This means you have to be proactive. You need to know what calls and communications are emergencies, and what things you can get back to later. This means that you need to be active in what chains of communication you have setting up automatic folders or outright unsubscribing to those distracting mattress sales. If that is what is interrupting you it’s a problem.

Your proactive listening should also change based on your situation. If you have a pregnant cave wife back at home, your cell phone will be on, and no one will expect anything different. Those who do expect your cell phone to be off and ignored under such a situation should promptly be removed from your communal campfire.

Active Firedrill

None of this is said idly. I’ve been a part of security and the keeper up uptime of several sites. Most notable was a stent at that for one reason or another was the target of online attacks. It unfortunately didn’t matter if it was a holiday or not. For me, this came when all work communication was silenced over a Thanksgiving holiday break. I was out of town, but I was the one on call that break. As said, everything was silenced except an automated security alert that was hellishly privileged enough to ring through the sleep mode to tell me in its cheerful automation, 🎵The Server is on fire.🎵

I was lucky in one sense that it wasn’t in the middle of a family dinner, but unlucky that it was the middle of the night. There’s no good way to be woken up, much less a phone call. However, due to spending the time to set up how my sleep may be interrupted, this emergency phone call is one of the few ones that was allowed to get through, at least while I was the individual on call. Network issues, when it’s your job to fix them get precedence.


What I’ve learned is to be proactive with how you plan on listening to people. It’s not as simple as turning off your phone. It’s creating your internal definitions of what can be ignored and what needs to interrupt you. It’s worth taking the time to set up those protocols on your email so that you can respond to them at a later date. This will let you be an active listener and free from an untimely interruption. Build the community that you want and share how you are listening and how you want to be listened to. As always sharing is best around a campfire in your cave.