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How can our MPs really listen with so much distraction during debates?

PUBLISHED: 17:56 30 October 2019 | UPDATED: 17:56 30 October 2019

Anna Soubruy speaks in the House of Commons while several other MPs look at their mobile phones

Anna Soubruy speaks in the House of Commons while several other MPs look at their mobile phones

With so much going on in the House of Commons, David Clayton wonders just how our MPs can concentrate

I'm not sure anyone's really listening any more, I mean, really listening. We hear lots of things, but it's not the same as listening. In the course of the work I do these days I help people to use coaching and mentoring in their leadership roles and in doing so, run a little exercise to demonstrate proper, active listening. It involves a bit of role play where someone gradually loses interest in something they're being told. Without fail the person telling the story finds great difficulty in carrying on. The challenge is to listen and show you're listening. With that simple, visible encouragement you'll hear and understand more.

I was pondering this the other day while watching the latest shenanigans in the House of Commons. Prime Minister's Questions is as good as it gets for a bit of verbal cut and thrust. There was plenty of both! As various MPs stood up to put their points, audible, but out of vision, was a constant chuntering of numerous conversations. Occasionally the TV director would cut-up a wider shot of various parliamentarians engaging each other in some chit-chat and seemingly paying no attention to whoever was speaking. This was distinct from the usual barracking which, while thoroughly annoying, at least shows someone's actually taking note of what's being said. Well, enough to shout it down, at least.

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To top that you can spot some of our elected representatives on various tablets and smart phones, tapping away at their screens. I'm sure they're not shopping online, or something equally as inappropriate in the Chamber. No, I'd prefer to think they are at least responding to a constituent or confirming they're available for an appearance on Newsnight. However, on every training course I've ever run or attended, we turn our devices off and concentrate on the business in hand because it requires total concentration and we need to listen. I'm not clever enough to read or tap out a message and still concentrate fully on someone telling me something important. In the effort to do both, I do neither very well.

One anecdote from the world of radio, which I've inhabited for many a long year. I once wrote an e-mail to a presenter who was, at the time I sent it, on air. I wasn't expecting it to be read, let alone responded to. Within minutes a reply came back. It was a couple of paragraphs, not just a couple of words. Presenting a live radio programme for three hours involves looking at four different screens, adjusting up to a dozen faders and keeping an eye on some important audio level meters. On top of all that, interviewing a guest or three and listening intently to what they're saying, or more importantly, what they're not saying, is full-on. After the programme I made it known to said presenter that far from being impressed they'd replied, I was much more concerned they weren't paying full attention to their live radio show.

But back to our MPs, are they superhuman and can do two things at once? Somehow, I doubt it. What has been going on in the Commons is, to put it mildly, important and requires total concentration. If nothing else, to try and distil the facts from the rhetoric and to discern the words over the din. I'm not sure why mobile devices are allowed. Is it not enough to have an out -of-office response to say so-and-so is currently in the Chamber of the House of Commons and participating in an important debate? As a constituent I'd be reassured and mildly impressed an MP was at the epicentre of our democracy, doing their duty.

The world is noisy and shouting at us more and more. It is getting harder, but take time to properly listen to someone. They will appreciate it and you may be surprised what you hear. Are you listening?

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