Are You Listening to Me?

By — on / Dispute Resolution

For your next negotiation, what would you pay for a gadget that shows you how well you’re engaging the other side?

It would tell you when you’ve been persuasive enough to close a deal.

It would also alert you when the other side has tuned you out, so you’d know how to take a different tack.

A team of researchers at MIT’s Media Laboratory are developing just such a device: specifically, software for cell phones and PDAs that analyzes speech patterns and tone of voice to determine how people are relating in conversation.

The developers claim the software could provide feedback so we’d know if we are truly connecting with others or just droning on.

It could tell salespeople whether prospects are mesmerized by a spiel or can’t wait to hang up the phone. The device’s ability to spot when someone else isn’t really listening inspired the prototype’s name, the “Jerk-O-Meter.”

Unlike the familiar polygraph, or lie detector, which measures physiological data such as heart rate and respiration, this technology analyzes interpersonal behavior. It tracks how parties take turns, make interruptions, and express affirmations (such as “Uh-huh” and “Yup.”)

Of course, the software’s reliability is only as good as the communication science it has incorporated. Two people might be silent, for example, but one could be listening raptly while the other’s mind is elsewhere. The Jerk-O-Meter would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

You won’t find this product at your cell phone store yet, but other gadgets of varying quality are already in the marketplace, such as devices that measure stress through vocal analysis. It’s doubtful they are better at sensing the quality of relationships than our own intuition (though that’s hardly perfect, either).

The fact is, with or without the latest technology, people will always be judging whether you’re paying personal attention to them. Next time you negotiate, it might be smart to behave as if the person across the table has a test version of the Jerk-O-Meter and is getting a reading on you.

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