Is digital technology killing our ability to listen?

Part of the Effective Communication series from Pinch Yourself Communication

Spoiler alert: there’s a case to be made for both Yes and No.

It may well come down to how you’re using your digital technology and what you define as listening.

The Yes Case

Without playing into generational stereotyping, there can be little doubt that the rise of social media coupled with the smartphone has changed the way people of many ages interact.

There has been a significant transfer of person-to-person interaction from in-person (face-to-face or by telephone) to digital channels (social media, online tools and apps).

This applies to the way we interact with family and friends, and the way we transact with businesses.

There are also some worrying signs that not all of these changes have had a positive influence on people, their social skills and their relationships.

For example different studies have found:
– People’s attention spans have fallen from 12 seconds to 8 seconds
– A 40 per cent drop in socialising by young people
– The negative impact of smartphones on conversation
– That just the presence of a smartphone divides a person’s attention and impacts the quality of social interactions.

What is well established about in-person communication is that the meaning is relayed on multiple levels.

Listening involves more than just hearing the words – it’s the full sensory process of understanding what’s being said through the words combined with what’s being said through the tone of voice and body language.

Two of these ingredients are missing when the communication occurs online.

While acronyms and emojis have sprung up to fill the gap, in the best case scenario they cannot convey the nuances of human emotion and at worst, they are prone to complete misinterpretation.

There are stories that do the rounds, some now apocryphal, about an elderly relative using ‘LOL’ at an inappropriate time like a bereavement when they intended ‘Lots of Love.’ *face palm*

The rise of such acronyms and emojis are a good reminder about the human potential to evolve and adapt to changes in their circumstances and surroundings.

The next phase in that adaption is the rise of artificial intelligence. While basic chatbots are already here, we are yet to fully experience and learn what it means for interpersonal communication in a world where conversing with robots and artificial intelligence become a prominent part of everyday life.

More time and longitudinal research will be needed to observe and fully understand the impact on people, including our ability to listen and truly understand each other and how we can adapt to these changes in our personal lives and in business.


The No Case

At no time in human history has it been easier for people and businesses to establish connections with a wide group of people and maintain regular contact with them across geographies, time zones and even languages.

Some research has found that social networks have the potential to strengthen a person’s real-world connections.

In business, the potential to engage in two-way conversation with people inside and outside the organisation have also been enhanced by digital tools.

These tools have improved the ability of businesses to listen, albeit this is often listening with the eyes rather than the ears.

  • INTERNAL: While face-to-face communication remains the most powerful way to engage with staff, Employee Social Networks (ESN) have created new opportunities for collaboration, information sharing and two-way conversation. While the real potential of ESN is in peer collaboration and using the tool to do their work, there is also potential for leaders to connect via live streaming, question and answer sessions and to use the tool to listen to staff feedback and comments.


  • EXTERNAL: Many organisations get caught in the trap of using social media to broadcast rather than engage in two-way conversation, but used correctly social media provides great opportunities to listen to customers and stakeholders. This includes interacting one-on-one, and also on a wider scale through what’s known as ‘social listening.’ Essentially this is monitoring social networks for mentions of your brand, competitors and other key words. This kind of listening gives businesses insights which can help them solve problems for customers and identify opportunities to market customer solutions, build communities, get feedback on products and services, improve customer service and identify advocates and influencers.



What are you see as the impacts or potential of digital technology for listening? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below










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Mairi Barton is a strategic communication and public affairs leader who has influenced and delivered outcomes at the highest levels of the Australian corporate, government and non-profit sectors. Mairi is the founder and Chief Executive of strategic communication agency Pinch Yourself Communication. She is an award-winning former journalist who served in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra. Mairi enjoys photography and posts to her Instagram gallery: @pinchmyself