I just Googled the phrase “effective listening.” It produced 312 million results. 312 million! For generations, there have been throngs of people in this world trying to teach us how to be better listeners. It is amazing that we are still so terrible at it. I guess we just haven’t been listening. As writer M.M. Owen recently said in an essay published on the website Aeon titled, “The Art of Listening:”
“As a culture, we treat listening as an automatic process about which there is not a lot to say: in the same category as digestion, or blinking.”
It isn’t always easy to listen, especially when you are attempting to listen to people with whom you strongly disagree. When the first thing out of someone’s mouth pushes a button in your brain that demands to construct a rebuttal, you have probably stopped listening already. In his book, “Killosophy,” author, Criss Jami puts it this way:
“It’s not at all hard to understand a person; it’s only hard to listen without bias.”
Even when people spend most of their time in social media echo chambers where they develop narrow worldviews, draw lines in the sand, and refuse compromise, it is still important to know how those worldviews were constructed.
People’s views are often formed by personal experiences, as opposed to being rooted in deep ideological theories. Empathetic, active listening can help us hear and see the humanity in people who we have previously thought of in terms of labels such as evil, or the enemy.
People whose voices are not heard risk becoming invisible to society. When you are invisible your human rights are at risk. Sometimes, simply being heard and acknowledged can help bring marginalized people to the decision-making table and potentially deescalate tense situations. In the words of Hugo Powell,
“Listening, whether done by individuals or by companies and government, is a signal of respect. When people don’t feel listened to, they don’t feel respected. And when they don’t feel respected, they feel anger and resentment. This resentment is exacerbated if people think you’re pretending to listen but aren’t.”
It is frequently pointed out that listen is an anagram for silent. A lack of distractions, eye contact, and giving one’s full attention are important. It is also important, however, to break your silence to confirm that you understand what someone is telling you. People want to be both heard and understood.
In her novel, “The Lake,” Banana Yoshimoto, talks about listening as a responsibility.
“When someone tells you something big, it’s like you’re taking money from them, and there’s no way it will ever go back to being the way it was. You have to take responsibility for listening.”
Once you know something it is difficult to unknow it. What you do with information is a reflection of your values. If listening reveals that someone might be in danger, or is starving, moral and ethical questions are suddenly in the forefront. Listening is serious stuff.
I want to share one last quote about listening. It is from Eudora Welty’s book, One Writer’s Beginnings:
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
Listening should not be considered a chore. When you listen, it should be done with a sense of anticipation that something important, or insightful might be about to come your way. Welty’s idea of “listening for” rather than simply “listening to” is a great reminder that at any moment you might hear some thought or idea that you did not expect to hear. That thought or idea might shed light that makes a little more sense of something that you’ve been struggling to understand. Listening always has the capacity to give unexpected gifts.