Pohangina Pete’s neighbourhood cat Charlie, who’s an excellent listener
I try to listen to
[ — Little Audreyís Story by Eliza Ward]
Listening is a skill, like talking or walking. We learn it by practice; we lose that skill by not practicing it. Its mastery is necessary to competent conversation, even to empathy: If we cannot really hear others, how can we understand them, and if we cannot understand them, how can we care about them?
Karl Menninger said: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and
To listen, we need to silence both the external noise ‘pollution’ that masks much of the richness of sound all around us, like a fog obscures our vision of everything except the fog and the things in immediate proximity, and the internal noise, the machine in our heads, which prevents us not only from hearing and listening, but from thinking (including processing what we hear) and from being our authentic selves.
Yesterday’s poem-essay on why we do what we do contained my story about the increase of bird and squirrel chatter just after I filled the feeders, and, when I continued to stay close to the feeders, the subsequent silence a few short minutes later when they gave up waiting for me to leave. I would not have been able to write this a year ago — I had forgotten how to listen, and would never have ‘heard’ the silence.
The sounds all around us constitute a series of ecosystems of their own, and as in physical ecosystems the human aural or acoustic ecology of humans competes with our attention and drowns out all others. Listen to conversations and watch the power struggle between people to dominate the conversation, by consuming the bandwidth with volume (both amplitude and frequency). Just as many of us can no longer see the beauty in a natural landscape or seascape, many of us can no longer hear any soundscapes but our city’s and that of our own voice.
In an article last week Pohangina Pete wrote:
When the worldís full of noise you donít hear whatís said softly, you miss the subtle sounds: racked by dissonance, you can no longer listen…Sometimes you only hear what the worldís saying when itís silent…Eventually Tigger [Pete’s cat] stops purring and sits on the edge of the verandah with his back to me, looking out at the brilliantly green paddock. Small movements of his ears; locating things I canít hear. I wonder what his silence sounds like…Sometimes you only notice things when theyíre no longer there. When the wind dies, for example, and the soft rattle of cabbage tree leaves ceases; when the bumble bee fumbling and buzzing along the verandah finally settles on a blue clothes pegóthen you notice the silence.
Whisper to an animal, instead of talking (or shouting!) and watch its surprised and attentive response. Listen attentively, carefully, without interjecting or thinking about how to respond, in a conversation with another human talking about something they care about, and you will get that same astonished, rapt response. It even works on the telephone — people can hear you listening.
So what can we do, how can we become better listeners? Here are some ways to practice re-learning to listen:
With regard to point 10, way back in 1939 Margaret Wise Brown wrote a children’s book called The Noisy Book. Here’s the story:
Muffin, a very little dog, one day gets a cinder in his eye. The veterinarian puts a bandage around Muffinís eyes and he can no longer see. His ears now become his guide to the world around him. It is an acoustic world of often confusing sounds. When Muffin finally arrives home he hears a sound he cannot identify. It is both familiar and yet strange. He cannot determine what it is. Readers are asked to guess what Muffin might be hearing and the answer is finally revealed at the end of the story.
If we want to teach our children to listen, and learn to do so ourselves, this would seem a worthy addition to the bookshelf.
I was tempted to add to the above list: Avoid discussions and meetings on things you don’t care about, and conversations with people who are terrible listeners, since they make listening tedious and unpleasant, and negatively reinforce your listening habits. But that’s most meetings and conversations. Easier said than done, alas.
“The biggest problem with communication”, said Shaw, “is the illusion that it has occurred.” Much of that illusion is created by inarticulate and inconsiderate speakers.
The rest is the fault of our lost listening skills.
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
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Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
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If I Only Had 37 Days
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