Re-Learning to Listen

Pohangina Pete’s neighbourhood cat Charlie, who’s an excellent listener

I try to listen to
the still, small voice within
but I canít hear it
above the din

[ —  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
expand.” Good listening skill thus has tremendous social power, perhaps more even than good speaking ability.

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:

  1. Close your eyes. Like Muffin, shut off the other sensory inputs to your brain and let sound emerge. Try it when you’re ‘watching’ TV or a movie. A famous producer once said that if audiences re-learned to listen, to the nuances of voice, to the complex sounds of footsteps and wind and kisses, TV and movies wouldn’t need music anymore. This will also provoke your imagination, much as the opposite (watching TV with the sound off) does.
  2. Get away from noise. Turn off the TV. And the stereo. And the PC, even if the sound is off. Find a quiet place where there is no competition for your aural attention.
  3. Learn to meditate. While meditation involves learning to tune out external distractions, including sounds, it is a way of learning to focus attention on one thing. Once learned, that focus can then be on listening.
  4. Listen with your eyes. Pay attention to eye, hand, facial and body language. The ears are the main organ for listening, but not the only one.
  5. In meetings, say less. Use a (real or imaginary) talking stick. Plan to say nothing during the meeting, and just to listen to what others say. Make the purpose of the meeting deciding what you will personally do as a result of what you learn in the meeting, not adding your two cents’ worth. Don’t interrupt. Take the stick (or the floor) no more than twice during the meeting, and then only to build on something that someone else has said. Be amazed at how much more carefully people listen to you when you speak more slowly, quietly and infrequently, and how intelligent they say your comments are. Also, ask intelligent and interesting questions. They force you to pay attention to what others are saying, and help the person talking appreciate your interest in the subject and focus their answer on you, making your listening more rewarding and hence reinforcing the listening skill.
  6. Practice interviewing, and facilitating others’ conversations. Interviewing forces you to listen to the answers of the interviewee. And by focusing on making others’ conversations articulate, coherent and productive, you will learn a lot about the skill of conversation, and hence about the skill of listening.
  7. Record or write down what you hear. “Play back” your recording or paraphrasing, to see what you missed.
  8. Eavesdrop on others’ conversations. Learn from their listening mistakes. But be careful — you may end up laughing out loud at the absurd misunderstandings that others’ inability to listen causes, and blow your cover.
  9. Find model good listeners. Listen to them, and discover how they do it. Ask them how they became exceptional listeners. Learn from their example. And just trying to identify great listeners will force you to listen more carefully.
  10. Teach your children how to listen. Read to them, and pay attention to what they say. Be a model for them, teaching them by listening carefully to them, paraphrasing, clarifying, helping them learn and understand. From teaching, we learn ourselves.

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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6 Responses to Re-Learning to Listen

  1. Excellent points. I think this is why there’s so much hostility today between people of varying opinions and ideologies. We’ve all forgotten how to listen. We wait for an opening in the other’s speech, which we’ve not listened to because we’re busy composing our own words, getting ready to spout our opinions. Another good tip might be to practice allowing breaks into one’s own speech to give others a turn without needing to interrupt.

  2. Octavio Lima says:

    Thanks a lot for this inspiring post.

  3. Patry says:

    A wonderful list. And great to run into the “familiar face” of pohanginapete’s neighborhood cat here!

  4. Dave, I’m delighted I was able to contribute to this, and I appreciate those clear points you’ve made for us to practise. I think the ultimate in being a good listener must be the ability to pay attention so closely that you lose yourself in what’s being said.

  5. I stumbled on your web site and have been absorbed by the breadth of your writings and their relevance in the practical world. Kudos for that. I guess the only comment I can make on this topic is that most conversations if destined for a purpose ends up being a win-loss situation. In that model, the purpose is not to create a more meaningful output but to ensure that one participant is the winner. The human tendency and nature to see everything in terms of ‘I’ is one of the root cause of our lack of ability to listen. It is sometimes very difficult to distance from it and constant and conscious practice may improve it.

  6. virginia yonkers says:

    I would make one more suggestion. When speaking, don’t make statements but rather ask questions. This forces you to think in terms of the other person rather than presenting your own ideas.

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