Any simple time-and-motion study in our homes, workplaces, shopping malls or transport hubs will show that the more time we spend with devices in the digital realm, the less time there is to spend with people in the human realm. At the same time, it’s probable that constant online violence dulls us to real pain. How many of us watched with strange fascination the murder of the Russian Ambassador in Turkey without fully considering the tragedy for his grieving wife? Contact and content are exponentially increasing, but quality communication could well be waning. With that, there is the real risk that we lose our practice in listening.

And, it’s not only about having less time to listen, but also less inclination to do so. As we read of a new American President, “post-truth” and “fake news”, Aleppo, and constant acts of random and horrific terrorism, our world is often an indecipherable and frightening place. Our instinct for self-protection can make us wary. As our “flight” mechanism kicks in, it seems easier to avoid threats by turning off our ears and our minds to any views but our own safe ones. Life in our self-designed bubbles may seem safer, but it is most likely murdering the mutuality that has always sustained us a species.

Yet, we somehow know there’s something troubling going on. A recent exploratory survey conducted online (of course) by Lifeline indicatively showed that 80 percent of Australians believe we are growing lonelier as a society; some two thirds agree that social media is either contributing to that loneliness or they are uncertain if it is.

However, as the representative of the organisation that listens to nearly 1 million contacts per year from some 250,000 Australians in some form of crisis, I suggest that listening is not enough to mitigate the malady of modernity and the suicide tragedy taking place in one of the richest and best educated societies that’s ever existed.

In a 21st century society where listening is discouraged by both addictive technology and by conceptual risk, if we want to make a difference with our listening, such as helping people with their emotional wellbeing or saving their life, we now need to overcompensate and do what I have called in the media “listening with intent”.

– Peter Shmigel

Read more: Listening Is Not Enough to Mitigate the Malady of Modernity