Since the onset of COVID-19, I have observed through my work with clients via telehealth that people’s reliance on social media as a vehicle for connecting with others has intensified. While this engagement may be beneficial and necessary during the pandemic, it does not afford us the opportunity to connect on a more meaningful level. Even more concerning is how this contributes to individuals not directly learning active listening skills.
Simply put, COVID-19 and our over-reliance on social media as a means to connect has impacted the process of ACTIVE communication. Think about a typical post, whether it consists of a picture, a funny quote or the sharing of a political news article. The main benefit of social media is to put information out into the universe as a means of sharing with others. However, this process is usually one-sided and does not typically result in active conversation. Individuals may use social media to stay “up to date” with others, but this might involve simply scrolling through posts without providing any comment or engaging in any conversation.
Think about the typical responses to a post. Individuals can choose to “like” a post, comment or scroll on. These responses lack much opportunity for active exchange. I emphasize “active” because even with a high-engagement social media post in which there is an exchange of comments, there is a passive reactiveness that ensues. Sometimes, the thread may become lengthy and escalate, leading to some inflammatory or not-so productive statements. Regardless, the active listening process is not present.
When we are talking with others in person, common courtesy is to ask, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” The other individual responds with a reflexive, “Good” or “Fine,” and then also asks, “How are you?” But on social media, this quick and simple process is completely bypassed. Typically, there is no exchange of questions. There is a responsiveness, but people are responding to statements, NOT questions.
For example, I recently posted a picture of a family outing. One of my friends wrote, “Beautiful,” and several others “liked” my picture. But people did not typically ask, “How was it?” or “How did it go?” Nor did I expect them to. There is not “room” for an active exchange. I am unidirectionally telling you about my life, not asking you to engage with me. Social media is no substitute for an actual conversation because there is no depth.
What happened to asking questions?
More and more, my clients verbalize challenges related to developing meaningful relationships. In many cases, I believe their reliance on social media in place of more interactive engagement is a primary reason for that.
Some people are not being taught how to have a simple conversation — not just an exchange of ideas but questions that can enrich a conversation. The clients I work with who fall into this category, many of whom are younger, are developing without an understanding of the importance of asking questions.
We ask questions to demonstrate that we care about the other person. We also ask questions to obtain more information, more details. We ask each other questions so that we can have a conversation. We ask open-ended and follow-up questions to learn the depths of a person.
Asking questions allows us a window into someone’s inner world, and this glimpse is key in building relationships. Without creating this opportunity, our connection with someone will remain surface level and superficial. I can recall interactions with people in which I shared about myself, but the listener didn’t ask any follow-up questions.
Those experiences feel odd and confusing. It can even come across that the other person is self-involved or selfish. Having such an experience can be deflating and potentially cause a barrier to further interactions.
Unfortunately, when people use social media as a substitute for connection, these feelings of isolation can be exacerbated, with users not always consciously realizing that they are missing critical aspects of engaging.
Actions to take
As counselors, we are constantly searching for opportunities to help others. So, what can we do in this instance?
1) Educate: One of the many hats counselors can wear is that of the educator. We can talk about the process of active engagement and share strategies to maintain active engagement even during these challenging times. We can directly teach our clients, students and supervisees about the significance of active listening. We can point out why social media does not easily allow for this. Because the process of active listening is typically a strength of counselors and because we are trained in it, we may sometimes forget that it is a developed skill and that it takes education and practice.
2) Role model: We can role model in our everyday lives by taking the time to ask others, “How are you feeling?” Typically, we might ask, “How are you doing?” However, if we want to demonstrate how to have a more meaningful exchange, asking how a person feels gets below the surface and provides an opportunity to show that we care and want to have a more significant interaction. We can also ask, “How can I better help support you?”
In other words, the active engagement process begins by asking a simple question. But once that has been mastered, we can more thoughtfully ask specific questions. In our sessions with clients, we can help them practice this art of asking questions, and they can experience the benefits.
3) Advocate: Students need to be taught these skills directly. Sometimes we assume that people will learn active listening skills somewhere along their journey in life. However, the only way to really know whether someone has learned a concept is to teach them that concept.
To piggyback on my first point, we need to advocate in our communities and education systems for classes, groups or other learning formats that can be geared toward active listening and interpersonal skills. This is especially important for a younger generation that is much more reliant on social media for communicating. From my perspective, it seems that students are given the opportunity to directly learn these subjects only if they have a formal diagnosis and undergo the process of obtaining an individualized education program.
4) Research: My insights into the impact of social media and technology in general on active listening are not heavily researched. I have found some anecdotal information on blogs and in newsletters, but there do not appear to be many evidenced-based articles available. Given that reality, another important opportunity we have as counselors is to collect data, both formally and informally. We can then share our findings to help inform others.
It is challenging just to survive in these times, let alone do any one of the things I describe above. But when I feel overwhelmed by our collective experience, I focus on what I can control. I can purposefully choose and feel empowered by these choices. I can choose to directly communicate with people rather than relying on social media.
Sometimes when I think about macro-level change, I feel like I am not doing enough. I do believe that our individual efforts have an impact on the larger community, however. Therefore, I remind myself that even the simplest of exchanges can be significant. It starts with asking a question.
Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s October cover story, “Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media”
Grace Hipona is a licensed professional counselor for NeuroPsych Wellness Center P.C. and holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. Her dissertation focus was on disaster mental health (specifically sheltering in place). She is also a certified substance abuse counselor and approved clinical supervisor. Her experiences over the past 15 years includes working in private practice, managing behavioral health programs, teaching graduate students, and providing supervision for master’s-level counseling students and counselors-in-residence. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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