I think it’s one of the most insulting things you can do, to listen to someone with only half an ear as if what they’re saying isn’t really important or interesting or valid. As if you’ve got something much more exciting lined up and you’re only listening to them out of politeness.
In today’s hectic world, it’s so common to be thinking of something else while you’re outwardly paying attention. What you were doing an hour ago, or what you’ll be doing in an hour’s time. Some domestic or marital or family crisis. A big news story. Some detail of the other person’s clothing or appearance. Anything but the full content of what they’re saying.
I think I’m listening to someone carefully. Then they say something that makes it clear I was miles away. The row with their husband? What row? When did they mention that? And I have to somehow tease out the details without revealing that I had drifted off for a while.
Listening, true listening, is a huge talent that many of us don’t possess. We have to keep on working at it. It always astounds me when someone really listens to me, so attentively they can recall every little detail of what I told them, even things I barely mentioned.
The trouble is, we’re all so busy nowadays that we’ve got used to only half-attending to people, and used to other people only half-attending to us. A lot of the time we don’t even realise we’re distracted, we think we’re fully present. It comes as a jolt when something makes our inattention glaringly obvious.
The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz says that what every person wants is to know they’re worth thinking about, that they’re not just an irrelevant nothing. And you can only feel that if other people are fully engaged with you. Nobody likes that glossed-over feeling.