Multitasking And Listening

In an ideal world, people would understand exactly what they wanted from one another. Unfortunately, people don’t always understand what someone else wants of them. In this manner, the majority of problems between people occur due to a problem in their mutual communication. In an ever more distracting world, where we are constantly faced with all kinds of stimuli begging our immediate attention, multitasking is perhaps one of the most influential factors feeding miscommunication. To understand what goes awry, we will first consider the process of communication. For starters, look at the following definitions:

  • Coding: Translating what one wishes to say into a concrete, verbal formulation.
  • Sending: Mechanical transmission of this formulation via speech.
  • Receiving: The mechanical process whereby the words spoken by the other person are heard.
  • Decoding: Interpreting (or giving meaning to) the words that are heard.
  • Serial: Tasks executed one after the other.
  • Parallel: Tasks executed simultaneously, that is, adjacent to one another.
Simple Schematic Representation of the Communication Process. Image © 2016 P. Houtekamer

Schematically, the communication process is as depicted in the figure above. You think about what you want to say, formulate a message, and produce it via speech. You send out your message, and the other receives it. He or she doesn’t only hear the words, but also gives meaning to them in order to understand what you are saying. This is what is called decoding the message. Then the roles are reversed: The other decides how to react, translates that into a verbal formulation, and sends his or her message back to you. In this repeated switching of roles, a conversation comes to be. The problem is that there is noise, meaning that the message as sent is received malformed. The listener doesn’t always receive the message in its original state. Noise takes on several forms.

Physical noise

Ever tried having a profound conversation on the dance floor? Sometimes there are too many other competing sources of sound in the environment, making it difficult to even hear what the other person is saying.

Physiological noise

Some people have better hearing than others. People suffering from tinnitus (a constant ringing in their ears) have trouble in filtering out that ringing noise. People also differ in how clearly they speak. Clear speech is easier to hear and understand than mumbling, for example.

Psychological noise

There are several forms of psychological noise, which can be categorised into attention issues and interpretation issues. Regarding interpretation, this occurs in the processes of coding and decoding. A message will be perfectly understood only if the listener decodes the message using the exact same rules as the sender uses to code the message. Coding and decoding have everything to do with interpretation and giving meaning to your intentions, or to those of the other. Each individual is unique and by definition gives particular meaning and interpretation to what is said. So, even if the message is received mechanically unscathed, it is distorted during the decoding process.

Divided attention means that several streams of information are competing for attention. Imagine trying to pay full attention to what the other is telling you whilst watching television and simultaneously using WhatsApp on your smartphone. Because you need to divide your attention in such a scenario, you literally don’t hear half of what the other is saying. The missing pieces you fill in yourself, so that you think you have heard the whole message. Research into multitasking (simultaneously executing several tasks) shows that executing tasks serially (that is, one after the other) is more efficient than parallel execution (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). This goes for both men and women – only men seem to be affected more than women. So women might, on average, be marginally better at multitasking, but it still has a negative effect on their performance.

Another division of attention problem is due to your own thoughts. When you are distracted, under stress, or too busy asking yourself how you should react, this draws attention away from understanding what the other is trying to say. When you don’t hear everything, you fill in the gaps in information yourself. This too is a form of multitasking.

Multitasking and listening

You listen by involving yourself actively in the conversation. When you are genuinely interested in the other’s story, this occurs almost automatically. As you now know that multitasking always negatively affects performance, writing, WhatsApp-ing, watching television and thinking about your strategy whilst listening all become the enemy. At least, if you really want to let the other know he or she is important enough to warrant your attention. Or when you really want to hear what the other has to tell you.

Dealing with noise

You will never be able to entirely eliminate noise, but you can see to it that its effects are limited. For starters, you can arrange a peaceful environment where there is less competition between several streams of information. Whenever possible, ask that the television be switched off during important conversations. Agree to give your phones a short break. And give full attention to what the other is saying. The funny thing is that taking your time (and thereby giving full attention) often saves you time.


Ophir, E., Nass, C. I., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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