Can you hear me now?

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Sometimes I wonder how the human race survived before cell phones and the Internet. Once in a while, I run into a person who doesn't have a mobile phone or a business without a Web site. How do they expect me to contact them, I wonder, mildly outraged. By carrier pigeon? Advances in technology have indisputably made communication easier. But have they made it better? The average American has only two close friends today—a third fewer than people did 20 years ago, according to a report recently published in the American Sociological Review (Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades," June 2006). The same study revealed that one in four Americans has no confidants. So communication is easier than ever, but we have fewer close friends to contact. Why? Ironically, the use of technology itself is partly to blame, according to Andrew Wolvin, professor of Communication at the University of Maryland. In an interview, Wolvin explained that mobile phones, instant messaging programs and e-mail take the visual components out of communication. He says that our minds tend to wander from conversations when we aren't visually focused. "Everybody is on iPods, IM, computers—everything but face-to-face communication," he says. "But we are wired for being visual." We love our cell phones and text messaging because they let us multitask during conversations, Wolvin says. But dividing our focus between the conversation and driving, typing and other tasks makes it harder for us to really listen. And the rapid-fire exchanges these devices allow have decreased our attention spans. Good communication for good relationships Despite technology, one thing never changes—good communication is a key ingredient to good relationships, Wolvin says. When relationships break down, it's usually because at least one person has stopped listening. Listening is probably the most useful life skill we have, and yet the least emphasized, says Melissa Beall, a member and past president of the International Listening Association. In a phone interview, Dr. Beall, who also serves as a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, said, "We just expect people to listen, but we really don't teach them how to do it." During our teens and early 20s, we are trying to find our place and role in this world, Beall explains. Especially during these years, we find acceptance, explore our feelings and work through problems through the course of our conversations. So, if someone doesn't listen to us very often, it's easy to assume they don't care about us, our feelings and our problems, Professor Beall says. And if we don't think they care, we're less likely to spend time with them, and the relationship suffers. Keys to better listening We can become better listeners by taking active steps during conversations, Professor Beall says. Our listening should be more than just auditory—it should be visual, mental and emotional. She suggests these tips to make our listening more effective: • Tune out physical distractions, like music, television or other people. • Pay full attention to the conversation instead of engaging in other tasks. • Focus your attention on the speaker—make eye contact—if the conversation is in person. • Don't interrupt while the other person is talking. • Make sure you really hear what the other person is saying instead of just thinking about what you're going to say when he or she stops talking. • Listen actively—nod, smile or show concern when appropriate. • Stay focused. Don't let your mind wander. It's reassuring to find similar advice for good communication and friendships in the Bible. In James 1:19 James 1:19Why, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
American King James Version×
, we are advised to be "swift to hear, slow to speak." Since God Himself created us and thus knows how we work best, we can be sure that following His advice will help us build better relationships through really listening to each other. VT

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