“Information” is a buzzword. Computers gather vast amounts of it, filter it, and help us use it to our advantage. It may be a cliché to say that information is power; yet, it’s a cliché worth repeating because we’re barely aware of the most powerful information of all: analogue information that intimately affects our lives and that has been around as long as mankind. The sad thing is that we ignore much of it. We go through our days like a horse with bad eyesight who also wears blinkers. We only see what’s literally “staring us in the face” and even then, we often fail to appreciate its significance.
The reason is our minds are preoccupied with data that has little to do with where we are at a given moment and what’s around us. We’re mainly concerned with our recent past or our imminent future. We’re rarely “in the moment” as the phrase goes, so we’re unaware of all the useful data around us – data that could lift our spirits or warn us of danger – because there’s so much background noise buzzing around our heads. We hardly notice the trees, the sky, or the people we pass on our way from one place to another; we’re not truly aware of the pleasant-smelling plants we walk by in the park, or the blissful warmth of the sun on our skin, or how it sparkles on water. We miss so much of the world’s beauty because we’re in a constant and blinkered hurry.
This problem is not new, but it’s become worse in recent decades, and it’s accelerating. Never before in man’s history have we been so constantly bombarded with data. Most of this is digital data delivered to one of our many electronic devices. Much of the data is of little use to us, but like gossip, we’ve developed a voracious appetite for it. We’re so bombarded with it especially by social media that our perception of the outside world is molded more by software than by our senses.
The problem even extends to our face-to-face communication. In this vital area, increasingly we’re becoming bad listeners and bad observers. The result is that all parties to a conversation miss much of what’s being communicated. We can’t force others to change, but we can do much to address the problem ourselves. Four simple techniques greatly enhance face-to-face interaction, and usually cause the other person to pay much more attention to us too.
First, we should give our full attention to the person speaking by maintaining direct eye contact and really listening to what they’re saying. Second, we shouldn’t interrupt them until they’ve finished a specific point, even if we strongly disagree with what’s being said. Third, we should let them know that we’re getting their message by using facial expressions like nodding and smiling. Fourth, when it’s our turn to speak, we should first ask a few simple questions to ensure that we understand the full meaning of what the other person had just said. This fourth point has another important function: it shows that we’re interested in the other person’s point of view, even though we might not agree with it. Using these four simple techniques has an almost magical effect on the communication because it prompts the other person to act in a similar way towards us.
Much fuss is often made of non-verbal communication, especially the kinds most of us are hardly aware of, like slight changes in posture, tiny hand movements, or minute facial expressions. These convey independent messages that usually strengthen the verbal one. But sometimes they contradict it. For example, when a speaker is nervous they may furrow their forehead or bite their lips. Such signals are often interpreted as meaning the speaker doesn’t fully believe his or her own words. Some people take such signals “at face value,” in other words, as solid evidence that the person is lying. More often than not, however, that’s the wrong interpretation. According to Joe Navarro, the former FBI special agent and bestselling author of many books on this and related subjects, it’s almost impossible to reliably determine if someone is lying through reading their non-verbal messages. He says that, though a person is on balance more likely to be lying, if he or she displays many different non-verbal signs that usually suggest lying, it’s far from certain. That’s one reason, he says, that law-enforcement agencies always get independent collaborative evidence; the other reason is that courts attach no weight to such non-verbal signals; nor should we. I just finished reading his latest book: What Every Body Is Saying - I highly recommend you read it.
To get the most out of life we must live in the moment. Eleanor Roosevelt wisely said “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” We must be keenly observant of the world around us in all its aspects and when we’re with other people we must really focus on them. That doesn’t only mean that we benefit from the abundant beauty and inspiration offered by world around us; it also means that we show respect for others, and so, develop a mutually deeper understanding of each other. Few gifts are more important than those.