On Listening


On listening

One of the many things I stress in my introductory psychology class is the diversity of normal human experience. While our own particular culture and our own particular family and the zeitgeist of our particular place in time have us implicitly believing that what we think and know is the reality, college students are smack in the middle of learning this is not the case. Many take that as exciting news. Some find it a little discomforting.

So as each semester winds toward a close I charge my students with the responsibility of truly listening. I charge them with the wonderful challenge of seeking out others with different world experiences, people whose beliefs, customs and expectations differ from their own. I ask my students to take on the mantle of listener in these and all relationships.

We don’t have particularly good national models of listening these days. People have become accustomed to hearing only enough from others to find the flaws in their arguments, and being a vigorous arguer has somehow become a more valued quality than that of good conversationalist or compassionate listener. We lose a lot as a result.

And our physical and economic environments have conspired to silo us. Over time we have become more likely to live near, and work and communicate with people who are more like ourselves than not. With less exposure to those whose lives or values differ, it has become increasingly easy to categorize people whose world view we don’t share.  Communities and work places become silos of increasingly like-minded people. But know that we are all more alike than not. And remember that we are all in this together.

I offer you the same charge I give my students as each semester draws to a close. Learn to listen. Really listen to those you know and love. But don’t stop there. Find a way to listen in that same way to people whose lives are different from your own. Listen to their stories, their beliefs, their opinions, long enough that you can truly understand and appreciate why they see the world as they do.

To paraphrase the philosopher Zeno, we have two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason, and we should use them proportionally. But becoming a listener is not an easy task. Here are a few hints:

1.       Alfred Brendel once said that the word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’ Silence makes many people uncomfortable, but if you can learn to reframe silence as thought, it might help you share it with others. 


So, if you find yourself organizing your rebuttal during a conversation, rather than listening to the other, make it a priority to develop the skill of quieting your mind and waiting. It may mean you don’t have a quick comeback, but you will probably find conversations move along in a more meaningful direction as a result.


2.       If you find yourself tempted to unfriend people on Facebook whose postings are too fill-in-the-blank, or not enough something-else, stop and think about the choice you would be making if you did so. Why are you friends to begin with? What can you understand about your world by staying in THEIR world? Is it worth a little discomfort to further that understanding?


3.       When you are bringing a group together, beware the tendency to stack the deck. It is easy to do—again, we tend to know people who think like us, live near people who think like us and prefer people who think like us. But when a group is needed to accomplish something an individual can’t do alone, diversity of opinion can result in a better outcome. Welcome challenges, ask someone to play the devil’s advocate. Clearly invite people whose perspective differs from your own.

4.       Finally, author and sound expert Julian Treasure offers this Sanskrit word as an acronym for listening well. RASA, meaning essence. Treasure suggests that we keep in mind the following when we practice good listening skills:

Receive what is being said. Try to do so without prejudgment

Appreciate the content and meaning to the talker

Summarize—we do not always hear what is meant, so providing a summary is one important way of making sure we are on the same page

Ask questions, want to know more, to clarify, to delve deeper. Demonstrate genuine curiosity and caring.

If we can do these things, we can come to know that at our essence we are all more alike than not. And knowing that, we can work together to make our world a better place.