Are You Listening…Really Listening?

by Sidney S. Stark

Learning to listen instead of talking was a skill my grandmother tried to teach me very early. It was not a lesson I learned easily or well at that time. Some would say I still haven’t mastered it. But years of sales ‘how-to’ seminars on the subject and more years of personal experience have added greatly to my conviction that she was right. You can’t learn anything new if you’re doing the talking since you already know what you’re going to say; so if you want to find something out or just gain more insight into the workings of the world in general and humanity in particular, listening is essential. But if it’s a skill then it needs to be practiced to be perfected. And if it needs to be practiced then there are doubtless optimal ways to do that and detrimental ones that add nothing to your listening expertise.

I remember being struck by the discovery that musicians and athletes also embrace the dictum that practice for its own sake is counterproductive. Arnold Steinhardt had a post about that this month on his blog Fiddler’s Beat describing the unique way he learned to practice as a very young musician. My countless hours of practicing on the golf tee, augmented by more countless hours of lessons bear witness to the importance of practicing the right way. So how do you do that with the skill of listening? Is it as easy as it would first appear, giving in to Nike’s marketing aphorism “just do it”, or is there more to it than that? As with most truths, I think we can assume it’s not that simple even if we don’t understand why.

We all know that simply remaining silent while someone else does the talking doesn’t qualify as listening. As soon as an errant thought comes into your head the neurons close down the open path to the speaker and open a different one going somewhere else. How often have you realized with a start that the person who’s talking has been saying something you missed while you let your mind move on? Some people give themselves away with the glazed expression that says they’re no longer present; while others are good at fooling the spectator into thinking somebody’s there. Either way, there’s no doubt that someone isn’t listening.

But there are other ways to listen that don’t involve concentrating on the impulses that come from sound waves. Listening to your own inner voice can be harder but eminently productive. In fact, I sense that practicing listening should start with us. You’d think it would be simplified with no external background sound to confuse or distract; but anyone who’s tried to meditate knows how seductive and insinuating inner voices can be. There are always thoughts we don’t want to acknowledge that also whisper to us with chronic insistence. They make more and more noise if we don’t pay attention to them until we have to spend all our efforts closing them out until we can hear nothing of value anymore.

So where should we start if we want to perfect the art of listening well enough to learn more? Why not start with ourselves? Practice paying attention to your own inner voice even when it tells you things you’re not sure you want to hear. There are so many rewards for working to listen- really listen- to yourself first and subsequently to the rest of the world as your hearing becomes more acute. It’s a skill supported by your mental and emotional neurons instead of your auditory ones, and thus it’s a sense that can strengthen as you get older instead of diminishing. The expert listener you’ll become benefits you and everyone around you as well.

Question @ You: Are you always, sometimes or almost never engaged in really listening?

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