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Distracted and disconnected: A communication reminder from my 4-year-old

Mummy, are you even listening to me?”

My 4-year-old’s jarring rebuke cut through my distracted reverie. Ouch.

“Yes darling, of course I’m listening. Keep telling me about that thing you were just talking about.”

​Busted. The truth was, I was listening, but in that distracted, “half an ear” kind of way, that enables you to say, “Wow, that’s awesome!” at appropriate interludes, without really paying close attention to the story. The rest of my attention was divided between driving the car, planning dinner, working out how I was going to get my other two kids to their respective training sessions, and brainstorming the next 50 (or so) things I needed to do in my business(es) to make sure I was progressing. Just an average afternoon drive home.

​As I glanced at my little man’s face in the rear vision mirror, I knew he knew I wasn’t really with him. His skepticism was plastered all over his face.

“I don’t think you were really listening to me, Mummy. You didn’t laugh at the funny bit.”

So busted. Not only had I missed the punchline, I’d been caught in a lie. Double demerit points right there. My options at this point were fairly limited: plough ahead with my make-believe scenario where I was actually present and focused on him, in the way I wish I had been, or acknowledge that I hadn’t really been listening, apologise and ask for forgiveness.

Not really a difficult choice.

“I’m sorry, buddy. You’re right. I was a bit distracted and I wasn’t doing good listening. Can you tell me that story again, and this time I promise I’ll do really good listening?”

He wasn’t letting me off the hook readily. “I’ll have to think about it. It hurts my heart when you tell me things that aren’t true. I really wanted to tell you that story.”

To add some salt on my parenting fail wound, he quoted one of my standard lines back to me, in perfect context. This kid was on the ball.

“Ok buddy. I understand. I’m really sorry that I wasn’t listening and that I wasn’t honest with you. Can you forgive me? I’d really like to hear that story.”

“Well, I think I can tell it again. But this time you have to laugh at the funny bit.”

Tough, but fair. “Good plan. Let’s hear it. I’m listening.”

In this scenario, my son shone a light on one of the biggest barriers to good communication. Distraction, multi-tasking, planning ahead, and trying to take shortcuts are all red flags that you are not connecting with the other person or their story. And it doesn’t take an expert in communication to recognise this.

One of the most fundamental human needs is connection. The great thing is, we are all capable of creating meaningful connection in even the most fleeting of exchanges. Simply making eye contact can be enough to make a connection that tells the other person they matter. Whether you are talking to your child, loved one, friend, colleague or the barista at your local coffee shop, giving them your full attention in that moment can create a sense of belonging and connection.

The extent to which so many of us are focused on our phones rather than the people around us feels like a symptom and a cause of the increasing sense of disconnection experienced by many. Whilst we are more digitally connected than ever, we are losing the art of connecting in the moment. Although I wasn’t on my phone when I was busted by my son for the sin of pretend-listening, I was caught up in the many other things I “needed” to get done.

The reality was, however, that at that time, in that moment, I had only two jobs. One was to drive the car safely. The other was to be present to my little boy who had so much to tell me after a busy day at kindy. The rest wasn’t actionable in that moment and, therefore, shouldn’t have been taking my attention. As hard as it is to be fully present when you have a lot going on in your life and in your head, it is worth the effort.   

Although my son probably doesn’t remember this exchange in the car, it made an impact on me. It was the inspiration behind one of my intentions for this year, which was to “be present”. That intention has required some reconfiguring in my head about how I get things done. Rather than spending every waking minute multi-tasking to maximise my outputs, I am working on focusing fully on one thing at a time. This includes whoever is in front of me asking for my attention at any given moment.

It also has me experimenting with the idea of removing almost every app from my phone, except the essentials. The challenge has been deciding what is actually essential, and what my “need to be productive all the time” brain thinks is essential. Considering the benefits of genuine connection, meaningful communication, and avoiding that look of recrimination on my child’s face, it’s got to be worth a go. I don’t want to miss another punchline. He may not be so forgiving next time, and the wrath of a 4-(now 5)-year-old with a good punchline waiting to be appreciated, is something to behold. 

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