As we rush about busy being busy and staring into our phones, are we losing the ability to listen to each other?
I recently met a friend for a coffee and a catch up. She arrived late and was on the phone as she sat down opposite me. She mouthed 'sorry' but continued with her conversation for five more minutes. When she finally put her phone down we ordered our coffees and she proceeded to reply to text messages throughout our conversation.
As she got up to leave, she said: "I feel as if we didn't really catch up properly."
Her phone rang loudly and she swished out the door answering it.
This is not an isolated incident. People do it all the time. Far too often these days, we talk but don't listen.
When did we stop listening? We can blame technology, we can blame busy lives, we can blame the endless distractions around us, but none of those things prevents us from listening.
I'd never really thought that listening was an art, a technique, something that you could learn to do well, until I volunteered for the Samaritans when I lived in London.
I actually volunteered because someone close to me was having a really difficult time and I didn't know how to talk to them. I felt useless, I wasn't helping them at all and I thought that if I joined the Samaritans, somehow I'd learn how to ask the right questions and maybe be able to help.
During the training, the facilitator kept talking about active listening. It was the first time I'd heard the expression. What does it actually mean and can you learn it, I wondered.
Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and mirroring back what is said, and withholding judgment and advice.
Over the weeks of training I learned how to actively listen and I can honestly say that it is a tool that has stood me well in the 20 years since I learned the skill.
Another crucial tool of a good listener is curiosity. Everyone has a story to tell if you ask enough questions and listen to what they have to say. I'm not saying it isn't hard work at times, but it is always worth the effort.
We are far too quick to label people as dull or boring.
But maybe the problem is you. Maybe you're not asking the right questions or actively listening to what they're saying.
Another danger to our listening skills is the fact that we spend so much time communicating electronically. We choose text over conversation. If you are trying to tell a friend something personal, a worry, a fear or anxiety and you feel that you are not being listened to, it can be very hurtful.
If you aren't listening properly and throw out a thoughtless or offhand response, that friend is unlikely to ever share anything personal with you again.
I'm not suggesting we spend our lives leaning forward staring intensely into people's eyes, hanging on their every syllable - that would freak them out.
I'm just suggesting that we put down our phones, look up and listen. Listen to what your friend is telling you. Hear them and show them that they have been heard.
Sometimes, it just needs a small thing like saying to someone: "I'm so sorry. The situation you're in is really awful. It's horrible." They feel validated because you're the first person who has listened properly and understood how they are feeling.
It costs nothing but a little concentration, empathy and time, and could mean the world to someone having a difficult time. Put your phone on silent, lean in and listen.