Sunday 24 June 2012

The Real Art of Listening

By Eric Hanna, S. J.

It’s a cliché that people don’t listen. But when an individual says, “People don’t listen!”, s/he is almost invariably complaining that people don’t listen to me.

I’ve had a lot of teachers, some good and some bad. Many have taught very reasonably what they call “listening skills”. Which amounted basically to: shut up, pay attention, and write stuff down. Mildly helpful. But almost useless if the person practising the tips is not naturally good at listening or if the speaker is a poor communicator.

Let us consider this issue from the perspective of a touching story. Another cliché, really.

Some parents had a son, about six years old. Then a new baby came along, but she had a terrible disease and needed a transfusion to live. The parents wanted to donate their blood to but theirs was not compatible. Only the six-year old son’s was.

The parents asked their son if he would be willing to give blood to save his baby sister’s life. He requested to think about it for a while. And finally, with great gravity, he announced that he would be willing to undergo the procedure. The boy was very brave as he was hooked up to the machine and his parents stayed with him to hold his hand.

After it was all over and everyone was relieved, the little boy asked a question. “How long will it take before I die?” For he had believed that giving his blood to his sister would result in his death. And he had been willing to give his life to save her.

Charming, beautiful. But I reflect on this story in terms of communication and it takes on an horrific aspect. Parents traumatize their child through ridiculously poor communication! The thoughtlessness with which we regularly cripple our children’s understanding is very distressing to me.

But everyone knows that blood transfusions need not kill the donor. It makes no sense to explain the obvious. Except this assumption illustrates the most common reason why “people don’t listen”. Speakers do not speak to people. They speak at them. The parents had an idea of what was going on and spoke about it as they would to themselves, even if their intentions were directed at someone else. The parents spoke in a language that assumed the listener had the same experiences and knowledge that they did.

It’s an understandable mistake. But it is avoidable. Firstly, a lesson for speakers. If you want somebody to listen, speak that somebody’s language. If you don’t speak their language, try. If you don’t know what experiences they have had, ask. Which brings me to the number one way to teach anybody truly good listening.

Listen to them.

Those who are really listened to develop the skill of listening with incredible rapidity and depth. Someone who has experienced what it’s like to be asked what their experience is and listened to, to have a speaker adapt his style and mode of explanation to best suit the listener’s experience, that someone has first-hand knowledge of how to listen.

The best teachers I’ve had have carefully observed and enquired after their students. And they also didn’t assume their students had the same kind of experience or way of looking at the world as they did. To the best teachers, differing experience is not an impediment to communication, but communication’s very beginning. Because instead of talking at a wall of unknown individuals, the teacher is talking to, sharing with, a group of people s/he is getting to know. Students find it easy to listen in such classes and those teachers rarely complain about the lack of listening skills in others.

So if you’re lamenting the fact that nobody listens to you, start asking after others, start genuinely discovering how they look at the world. Listen to them. And if you find someone who really listens to you, stick by them and learn from them.

You’ll be amazed at what you hear.

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