Automated Listeners: Are You in Control of Your Attention?

Automated Listeners: Are You in Control of Your Attention? October 3, 2019
Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

I taught my children how to speak, but I was a bit surprised with myself when I realized that I didn’t teach my children how to listen until much later. Sure, I taught my children how to do what they are told, and I am sure you have as well. But how often to we put forth energy toward ensuring that not only can our children talk but listen?

I don’t recall any special classes in school, either, that encouraged or instructed on the importance of listening. Do you? We are taught to follow the rules, memorize the equations and remember all the facts, because they will be on the test. But we aren’t quizzed on our listening skills.  Comprehending something is not the same as listening, and I am sure many a married/partnered and irritated people can attest for this. Sure, we are taught how to recall information. But more so, we are taught to obey, we are taught to do, but we are not taught to listen with care and compassion.

Not surprisingly, there is communication breakdown and potential meaningful conversations suffer as a result of our inability to proactively listen. We struggle to maintain a civil discourse, for one. And secondly, we find sitting still and focusing on the present moment to be entirely difficult. Time is money, after all.

Society has impressed upon us an insta-reality, where a “now or never” decision is presented and expected to be made in 7 seconds or less. Listening interrupts this insta-flow of reaction. If we can’t decide to accept or reject something we hear (or read) instantly, we become irritable, anxious, and impatient.

I used to say, “tell me the time, don’t build me a clock.” I used to rush people to get to the point. Not so that I could process what they were saying, but more so because I already had a response ready to spit out before they had even finished talking. Sound familiar? If not, focus in on any media commentator. They stick to their talking points and rehearsed rhetoric. Even if they bring guests on the show, even if the discussion goes down four different rabbit holes, if a point is to be made, it will be. No one on the stream waves is going to be caught off guard with the inconvenience of having to process and reflect on another’s statement. They are prepared to share their reactions no matter what has been previously said.

We listen to respond, not to understand. We “listen” only so that we can be given a turn to speak, and we surely focus more on our speech more than we do another’s.  Given the current climate of our affairs, it shows. Responding is all the rage—or rather, reacting is, especially in the social media spheres.

There’s a part of me that wonders if the idea of listening scares people. If another is willing to hear the person talking, they may actually understand them better. And if we understand someone better, it makes it rather challenging to oppose them and treat them as our mortal enemy— should they say anything unfavorable.

Let Me Be the Judge

If we listen, if we are willing to understand, it makes it harder for us to judge another. You would think that we would want a remedy for our inclination to judge. But those who don’t judge, don’t get the reactions that are wanted, nor the engagement and the likes and retweets. Besides, even the Bible-thumpers can find a way to manipulate scripture so that they are righteous in their judgments. With just a little wordplay, we can get away with judging. And so long as we justify it, we don’t feel bad about it nor see a reason to stop doing it.

Social media gives us a forum to judge. It’s literally the reason the Facebook was invented—to judge and rate others. Social media is the realm of reality where principle and integrity go out the window as soon as something scandalous takes place in the Twitter-sphere, especially for Christians. But we don’t call it judging. We are just stating our opinions. We are admonishing others; we are just trying to correct bad behavior. We are “exposing evil.” We can find many reasons to justify what we are doing, even though what we are doing is blatantly and unapologetically judging others.

Many of us claim that we follow the teachings of Jesus the Christ while we are judging and shaming (and even trolling) others. It’s as if when we log into our accounts, we log out of responsibility to the repeated command to not judge.

Here are a few reminders:

Matthew 7:1- 5

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.  

Luke 6:37

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven…

Romans 2:1-3

Therefore, you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?

James 4:11-12

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The writing is on the wall, well, in the text, yet we ignore, dismiss, and altogether twist the words of the Good Book that we claim contain the pillars of living a Christian life. Because the internet is different, right? Ahem, “you have no excuse, everyone of you who judges.”

I justified judging others while also swearing up and down that I am Christian. It earned me the label of “self-righteous” and “holier than thou” from my mother and sisters. For years I dismissed it because they just didn’t understand Christianity the way that I did, and those are definitely the people we have permission to judge, right?

Once I was willing to take an introspective look at myself, however, I did come to terms with how self-righteous I had been. That alone was a big bite of crow to swallow down. When I was ready to face the obvious truth that I was judging others, I also learned that I wasn’t listening to others at all. I find that when I don’t actively listen to hear new or different information, I have enough space to start making assumptions and accusations. Once I have my mind made up, it’s hard to tell myself that I may have come to the wrong conclusions. Do you ever catch yourself reacting to something that you didn’t fully absorb and then you realize you sound like an ass going off the way you are? I noticed that I was doing that often and it was only making my relationships more difficult to navigate.

My deliberate choice to react to partial information instead of pausing to really hear what the other was saying was creating a disconnection within my most important relationships. More than that, others were really suffering and dealing with internal pain from my inability to listen. Not being heard really hurts. A person doesn’t really want to talk if they aren’t going to be heard. It’s not really a dialogue if you are the only one talking. It becomes a monologue.

If this inept ability to listen infected my direct circle of influence, I had to consider how far the circumference expanded. And when I was willing to open my eyes and my ears, I learned that it impacted many people and there was no one to blame but myself. It’s not only that I wasn’t listening and looking for clever ways to pass judgment the Christian way; I also just automatically reacted in such a way that I wasn’t even aware of it.

Emoticon Reactions Only

I was “emoji reacting” to all the people in my life. What do I mean by that? Ponder this. Do you recall all the comments that you “reacted” to, or “liked” on your social media in the last day? Do you remember which photo you heart reacted to? Do you recall which post you gave an angry emoji to? Do you remember the total number of thumbs up reactions you sent out today? What about all the detailed opinions you typed out—do you distinctly remember everything you said?

My off-line life was starting to pile up with nothing but reactions that I couldn’t remember giving out. My husband would tell me about a meeting he had later in the day, and I would nod and say “got it” but I didn’t really file that remark away for later. It wasn’t that I forgot, it was that I didn’t pay attention at all. It’s kind of like looking at the time 3 or 4 times before actually seeing the time.

My daughter would ask to use my vehicle, and I would tell her yes, but days later, when I went to go somewhere, I would act surprised that my vehicle wasn’t parked in the driveway. I would text my daughter and ask her why she took my car without telling me and she would respond by saying “didn’t you hear me, I asked you and you said I could!”

Not only are we not listening to others, we aren’t even paying attention to the things we say or type out. It’s almost become an automated programming that we have installed, thanks to the influence of the internet. My automatic programming has me respond to others, but I don’t even pay attention to what I am saying to them. More than that, if we get so caught up in always monopolizing the conversation, we lose track of what we said to whom and we end up repeating ourselves and our stories.

We have turned listening into an activity to react to with emoticons instead of absorbing the energy that is offered. Without energy, we cannot have connection. The thoughts and ideas expressed by others are usually expressed with emotions, and as a dear friend and life coach once told me, “emotions are energy in motion.” The people we interact with offer us a paradoxical potentiality of proportionality: the energy they share to provide connection—the emotional expression of their thoughts and opinions—can either charge us or drain us.

Attention is Sacred

Writer and pastoral philosopher Daniel Kent recently sermonized on this problematic programming that has infected our mainframes. He observed that our judgment becomes automated. Paul called this “doing the things I do not want to do” (Romans 7:19). We aren’t consciously aware of the things we are saying, so essentially, we aren’t conscious to the judgments we dole out either.

Kent advises on how we can take back control of our automation by practicing presence—by attending to what we are not only saying, but what we are hearing and listening to. Attention is the price we pay for connection, but too often, as Kent points out, we pay attention to things that just want to control us, not necessarily connect with us.

Our “attention is sacred”, Kent laments, and so we should “budget our attention” and “invest our attention wisely.”

If only we acted like our attention is sacred. Imagine what our conversations could look like. Imagine if instead of clinging to the right to judge, we open our minds to the possibility that if we listen, we could learn something? More than that, we could actually connect to someone, and that connection could strengthen us—even charge us— internally.

This is where the energy charge comes in. It’s brought to us in the form of relating. We can only relate if we listen, however. We can only listen if we guard our attention, if we focus it, and if we are willing to freely give it to those who have earned it.

People earn our attention quite simply, they have already invested their attention in us, it’s only fair that we reciprocate if the exchange is to be meaningful. Otherwise, what’s the point? It merely becomes “occupied attention”, or attention to fill the space, but without conscientiousness. This form of attention becomes an energy drain.

It becomes especially draining when we utilize this form of “passive attention”, as Kent calls it, within our interactions with others. We take the practice of zombie scrolling through our newsfeeds and apply it to how we interact with people face-to-face. We mindlessly scroll and so we mindlessly listen. The results create a disconnection within our relationships. We pay attention to our loved ones the same way we pay attention to our social media accounts. Like “numb brains gently floating down algorithmic content streams”, as Kent mentions.

Take Charge, Stay Centered, Live Intentionally

Passive attention creates lazy listening. Lazy listeners often make great talkers. I know from experience. But I also know that talking all the time can be rather tiresome and draining. And if people come to expect that all you’ll do is talk, they will catch on quick and remain silent while you conduct your monologue.

Kent breaks down a triad of remedies that can provide some reprieve for the typical energy draining practices that we have created for ourselves.

First, take charge of your attention. “Don’t’ be mindless” Kent cautions, “What shapes and orients our entire life is what we invest our attention into.” Similarly, Kent’s lamentation echoes the saying “that which you gaze upon, you become.” Remember, the programming that we allow to run our response system has been influenced by where we direct our attention to the most.

So, for listening, ask yourself if you focus more on what you will say, or if you will focus on what the other is saying. Are you listening to respond, or to understand the Other?

Secondly, stay centered. “Live from the inside out.” If we are willing to do this, we will be less likely to judge. For me, living from the inside out means opening myself up to all that is being offered by the Other and allowing space for what the Other has to say. What energy are they sharing with me? How can it charge me? How will it expand my experience?

Third, live intentionally. This will help prevent us from allowing the automatic programming to run its course. If we focus in on what we are hearing, we will be able to hear a deeper message. It’s the analyzation of that message that provides for us the energy charge that we need to maintain the connection. Living intentionally means being aware of our present moment, listening to the words the other is saying; it means that we can hear and feel their energy in motion.


I have written about Dan Kent’s work here.

About Danielle Kingstrom

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