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On Listening

I try to be a good listener as much as I can. Our everyday lives will contain numerous moments of having to listen to others, may it be as simple and plain as watching television or tuning into the radio, casual conversations, consultations, having classes, and to the more serious situations such as friends confiding in you and you praying to your god. Speaking, like listening, is something we cannot do without daily. But in contrast to receiving words, perhaps speaking is "easier": I relay what is in my mind--information, question, request, opinion--and put them into words. Eloquence and clarity are what I aim for; these are what writers and teachers and story tellers know: their craft and skill and careers depend on their ability to articulate in the most creative and interesting way what they report about or reflected on.

I intentionally used the words "craft" and "skill" in describing speaking. We know that not everyone is a good speaker (public or private) as not everyone is also a good writer (in substance and form). There is an art to writing, and it takes patience, practice, instruction and perhaps some talent to be good in composing the spoken or written word. But what about listening? Could there also be an art to it? Can one say that there is also virtue or excellence, as the Greeks meant by that word, in being able to receive words instead of delivering them? In other words, we often say of a concerned friend or a patient student, that one is a "good listener." But what does that mean? What does it take in order to be able to listen well?

Let's take a look at bad listeners first. Who are they and what can we notice of them? One characteristic we notice immediately is their susceptibility to distraction. When I speak to a bad listener one of my pet peeves is when he or she does not look at me in the eye. The eyes wander about, look left and right at the slightest visual stimulus or auditory provocation (someone who enters the door in a restaurant, a dropped pen, the television from a far and so on). What this tells me is that you do not listen to me intently, that you just hear my words through your ears and they are not "processed" by the mind, and this explains why another sound can easily replace or substitute the noise that I produce. I have to compete for your attention because what I say is like any other sound that you can choose to focus on or listen to.

Another sign if you are a bad listener is if you do not understand what was said. Related to being prone to distraction is the usual inability of someone to focus on what the words as a whole mean. Like reading an article or a book that bores me, I skim through the pages, hoping that a sentence I chance upon can tell me something about the whole, because I have no plan of going through the whole in order to understand it. Understanding what is said or written, to be sure, requires that you know what most of the words you hear or read mean, and that you possess a certain level of comprehension--or that ability to put things together. But most of the time bad listeners are those who do not even attempt to understand what a friend in a casual conversation or story is saying. Why so? Because focusing on what you tell me requires a decision on my part. I may by just surrendering to receiving the sounds you produce really hear you, and I cannot do otherwise instead if I decide not to listen to you. And the first step to take in order to really listen to you is to decide to focus on what you are saying, and that means suspending all the other sounds I hear.

Like the eyes, the ears can also select what it wants to hear. Every time I am surrounded by sound or noise. Now the clock on my desk is ticking. From a distance I notice that someone is drilling something or using an electric saw where a house is being constructed. Our neighbor's dog greets the messenger by successive barking. Our help, I now hear, is preparing something in the kitchen, she is pounding on some garlic I guess. Just now the wind is blowing and the leaves are dancing. And nearest to me--the last sound I notice--is the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. All these sounds and noise I did not notice when I was thinking as I wrote the above sentences. And now I realize something: that what could be the nearest sounds we hear are not keyboards being tapped on or they rhythmic performance of clocks but the sound of the voice which speaks in our mind when we think. All the while I was trying to think I was able to drown all the sound and noise around me. Imagine that: by deciding to listen intently, we are able to suspend all other competing noises to the point of as if they do not produce sounds. Isn't that somewhat of a miracle?

For imagine if you could hear everything and you are not able to focus on the sounds you choose to listen to. That is unbearable. The saw from the distance sounds as loud as the clock on my desk, the cries of the crushed garlic as noisy as my thoughts. Someone who does hear everything is some unlucky fellow. He'd be unable to distinguish one sound from another, and would not be able focus on what he wishes to hear. And we know of such cases. There is a medical condition known as hyperacusis which is a defect of the inner ear, leading to hypersensitivity to certain frequencies of sound. But hyperacusis is a physical defect; those who have it have an excuse. People without the condition and are just bad listeners have none.

What is a good listener then? Someone who is not easily distracted, focuses on what you say, and perhaps most important of all, wishes to understand you the best he or she can. Good listeners then, at least for the most part, are the thinkers. Reflective persons are those who know how to listen to themselves, can gather their thoughts, and because of this they are able to clearly express themselves in writing and speaking. The common mark that thinkers and speakers and writers share is knowing how to listen well. And if I may add another trait they have in common, one which is let's say the condition of the possibility of being a good listener, is this: they all know how to dwell in silence. Whence the lack of thinkers and writers in our age of electric saws and television.

But mind you, the ability to think does not automatically translate to becoming a good listener. Sometimes sound thinking can also be the very hurdle that keeps you from sound listening. There are those who always have opinions, who cannot wait for you to finish to share them, who only use conversation partners so they have someone to listen to them, so they have a "sounding board," which is the auditory equivalent of a mirror. I guess needy talkers and thinkers are worse than bad listeners. At least bad and unreflective listeners just don't know how to listen, while talkative thinkers are blind Narcissuses who fall in love with their thoughts and choose to vainly listen to themselves.

Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597-1599  


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