A good friend was honored recently at a fancy event attended by several hundred people, which featured a keynote speech by an important and well-regarded economist. He was astonished to see that, only moments after the speaker began her talk, so many audible conversations began at tables across the room that it actually became difficult to hear the presentation. These weren’t whispered responses or reactions to anything being said. They were flat out chats, conversations, and sidebars having nothing to do with the event or the speech.
Since dinner had already been served and the guests had been seated for at least an hour, this wasn’t a matter of greeting and catching up with old friends you hadn’t seen in the flesh for a year or two; this was clearly just a case of people feeling free to go about their chatter and not giving a crap about, or having the slightest respect, for the speaker. The noise levels would have been embarrassing in any grammar school assembly much less in a grown-up formal event at a prestigious venue. But no one in the audience seemed to care.
I asked my friend what he made of this phenomenon. He said that, in fact, he had asked people afterwards what was going on. Was this simply another manifestation of the societal breakdown in basic adult manners, decent language, and polite behavior triggered by the consistently crude, boorish and infantile actions of our former president? Had the entire world emerged from two years of Covid-19 captivity with some kind of imagined permission to be as arrogant, ignorant, and self-centered as Trump himself, and utterly uninterested, concerned, or even willing to listen to anything that someone else had to say? Did no one understand any longer that listening quietly and carefully was the highest form of courtesy? We know that certain morons in Congress obviously didn’t get the memo during the State of the Union. Or was there some other explanation?
My friend reported that the consensus is that the daily Zoom meetings we have endured throughout the pandemic are to blame as much as the deranged Orange Monster. Seems we have all learned how to use the mute button quite effectively, which permits us to go about our more pressing and important day-to-day affairs with only half an ear and the slightest interest in what’s transpiring on our screens. In the hybrid and remote world of today, our phones, our friends, and even our families have come to be far more important and relevant to our lives than the remote and sterile humdrum of the virtual office.
But Zoom, Teams, Slack and other technologies, along with our omnipresent phones, are only part of the explanation.
Listening — across the board and in every context — is the hardest and the most important thing we can do today. And we’re doing an lousy job of it. Listening to ourselves, listening to our employees and customers, listening to our family members, listening to educators, regulators, and scientists — it’s all of a piece. Once we stop listening, we can no longer learn, and sadly, large portions of the population today don’t believe that there’s anything important left to learn. They know it all already.
Returning to a work world that demands some actual focus (and even rarely our rapt attention and participation) and learning to listen again after living through regular demonstrations that so much time has been wasted over the years in useless and meaningless meetings and presentations will not be an easy task for anyone. We’ve seen the other side so there’s really no going back. It’s not simply a matter of returning to the office– it’s that so many of the basic rituals and routines are now completely up for grabs.
We’ve lost a great deal of whatever patience we retained in the “hurry up” digital world we are now inhabit. We have come to believe, in our sped-up minds, that there’s always something better, more important, and more compelling right around the corner. Something that makes sitting or standing still and listening to anyone or anything ever more painful and difficult. Everyone at that dinner obviously thought they had better things to do, more important things to discuss, and other places to be.
Attention is the new currency in our lives, much scarcer and more valuable than money. How we and our employees and customers decide to allocate and expend it is all that matters for ourselves and for our businesses. We exchange our attention and our time for what we believe will be valuable for us. In the new attention economy, you’re never “off” and the constant stress of missing out has us perpetually stimulated, alert and on the move. Sitting still feels like sliding slowly backwards. We’re always seeking attention for ourselves, our products and services, and for our successes, but only rarely these days do we find the time and make the effort to pay attention to others, and to what’s going on in the rapidly changing world around us.
And yet, we tell our kids and our employees that paying attention to the smallest details is everything and that’s there’s no substitute for it.
In every business, there’s a simple rule: tell me what you pay attention to, and I’ll tell you who you are. Today, we still largely lead by example and so– in the real world– the culture, the commitment, and the ultimate competence of any company is determined in no small part by the actions of senior management. If they’re good listeners who pay attention and accept input from anyone and everyone, their businesses will grow and thrive. If they’re focused on trivial matters or not focused at all, their indifferent and cavalier attitude will be contagious. And, if no one is paying attention and listening, the rest of the team and the world in general stops caring and the business will eventually fail.
If there’s a moral and a message here, in so many different aspects of our lives and our businesses, it would simply be this: if we did a much better job of listening, maybe history wouldn’t have to keep repeating itself.