People who seem like they're paying attention often aren't—even when they're smiling and nodding toward the speaker. Research by Alison Wood Brooks, Hanne Collins, and colleagues reveals just how prone the mind is to wandering, and sheds light on ways to stay tuned in to the conversation.

It’s a common experience in the workplace: You leave a meeting feeling good about the discussion and believe everyone is on the same page.

“Then you meet with someone two days later, and you realize they’re not on the same page at all,” says Hanne Collins, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School. “You feel like maybe they weren’t totally listening.”

In fact, people often aren’t tuned in when we think they are, and it’s tough to tell when someone is actually paying attention, according to a forthcoming article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Collins; Alison Wood Brooks, the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at HBS; Julia A. Minson, an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School; and Ariella S. Kristal, a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia Business School.

After all, people are good at faking when they are paying attention to others, consciously or not, smiling and nodding when they are really thinking about their favorite streaming show or the football game they watched the night before.

Psychological research shows that feeling heard by another person is essential in a happy relationship, whether that’s communication between romantic partners, a patient and a doctor, or colleagues in the office. And feeling heard at work could make the difference between employees who enjoy their jobs versus ones who don’t, something important for managers to remember at a time when many are struggling to retain workers.

“There’s so much work showing that when employees are heard at work, they are going to flourish and thrive,” Collins says. “They experience greater internal motivation, they are more creative, and they feel like they are more able to voice their concerns.”

In an initial experiment to study whether people talking can tell whether the other person is listening, the researchers paired 200 strangers over Zoom to hold 25-minute conversations about a variety of topics, such as food and hobbies. Every five minutes, they sent a prompt to ask participants whether their minds were wandering—or whether they thought their partner’s mind was wandering.

The team found:

  • Nearly a quarter of the time (24 percent), the listener wasn’t paying attention to their partner.
  • Even more significantly, 31 percent of the time, the listener’s and speaker’s perceptions of attention didn’t match up.
  • About 19 percent of the time, the speaker thought the other person was listening when they weren’t.
  • And 12 percent of the time, the speaker didn’t think the other person was listening when they were.

All these misperceptions are problematic, the researchers say. First, vital information the person is trying to communicate might be lost, and secondly, the speaker might feel unnecessarily hurt, thinking the other person isn’t listening. “In both cases, we could benefit from trying to figure out what’s going on here,” says Brooks.

The researchers considered two possibilities: Either listeners are bad at conveying signs that they are listening, or speakers are bad at interpreting them. To examine these interpersonal dynamics, Collins and Brooks staged another experiment in which they placed a video screen behind the speaker that silently played commercials while they talked. They then told the listener to either:

  • ignore the screen;
  • pay attention to the screen;
  • or pay attention to the screen, but pretend they were listening to the speaker.

In order to make sure that listeners were really paying attention to the screen, they were given a financial incentive to remember as many commercials as they could.

“There’s a lot of social pressure to convey we are listening—we smile and nod, even when our minds wander,” Collins says. “We were curious if distracted listeners would shut that off or look similar to attentive listeners.”

Collins and Brooks then asked the speaker how much they thought the other person was paying attention to them. The results surprised them: There was no difference across the three conditions, with the speaker rating each listener about a 5 on a 7-point scale in terms of attentiveness.

To rule out the possibility that people are dividing their attention and continuing to engage with speakers, they staged another experiment in which partners again conversed over Zoom, but the researchers garbled the sound 0 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent of the time. Once again, speakers rated listeners’ attentiveness in each of these conditions at about the same level, dipping only slightly in the most garbled case.

“It seems people are able to act like they are listening really well, even when they can’t hear their partner,” Collins says.

The researchers say that just because people seem to be listening when they aren’t doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or malicious. Our minds naturally wander during conversation; sometimes, we are even thinking about the last thing someone said and end up missing the next thing.

“We suspect that many people struggle with competing motives while they speak and listen,” Brooks says. “Their minds wander, but they also want to listen attentively and make their partners feel heard.”

The bigger takeaway from the research, the researchers say, is just how unreliable several nonverbal cues seem to be in indicating whether people are listening or not.

“This research suggests that even when people are tuning out, they are engaging in these common nonverbal and paralinguistic signals of listening, by smiling and nodding and leaning forward,” Collins says. “People also rely upon these cues to feign their listening, and they’re doing it effectively.”

Collins and Brooks are currently exploring how verbal cues—pausing and asking questions or calling back to things said earlier, for example—can prompt better communication.

“You can look for moments to check in and ask, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ or ’Are we on the same page with that?’” says Collins. “Or even just pause in conversation and say, ‘I’ll give you a minute to sit with that.’”

On the other side, we can make people feel heard by remembering to ask questions and offering verbal feedback. It might help to think of it like a game, Brooks says.

“Conversation can be like a constant treasure hunt: What is my partner saying that I could follow up on?” she says. “The hunt for these nuggets can help you stay more attentive to the conversation, and keep your partner engaged, too.”

An even more powerful way to show you’re listening may be through “long-term listening cues,” like calling back from one conversation to an earlier one. For example, a boss who remembers an employee is going to a concert over the weekend can signal she cares on Monday morning by asking the employee about the show.

In moments where we find we aren’t paying attention, meanwhile, it may be as simple as apologizing and asking the speaker to repeat what they said—but many of us are reluctant to do that because it seems to show we didn’t care about what the other person was saying. In reality, however, it may demonstrate that you do care about the other person enough to understand them correctly, the researchers say.

“You are saying, I want to repair this because I think what you said is really important,” says Collins. “It’s better than them finding out three days later you weren’t engaged.”

More than anything, says Brooks, it’s important to give ourselves and other people grace, realizing that attention naturally waxes and wanes over the course of a conversation, and that fact doesn’t necessarily reflect how we feel about each other.

“We start talking when we are toddlers and do it our whole lives, so we think we should be experts at it,” she says, “but we often have very unreasonable expectations about how hard it is to talk and pay attention. No one is perfect at it.” Once we realize that, it may make it easier to occasionally stop a conversation and say: “I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I wasn’t listening.”
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