Careless listening is the handicap of our times. People are deaf not because they can’t hear but because they don’t know how to listen. Annesha Banerjee identifies the barriers to listening as an art and suggests how to avoid them
On one of the days during the pre-corona times when I decided to spend a day with myself, I chose a cosy cafe at Connaught Place to sit in after hours of walking around Lutyens’, Delhi. Since I was not engaged in a conversation with someone or myself, I found myself overhearing an ongoing exchange at the table nearby, where two girls were sitting. One of them, I realised, was complaining about the other not paying attention to her as she (the latter) was distracted by her phone. “You are not listening to me,” she said and looked annoyed.
My thoughts went back to the times when people complained to me about my lack of attention and vice versa. My friend offered a practical solution to this: He always ensures that he keeps his phone at bay whenever we meet and insists I do the same. This surely helps, but does it really resolve the issue of us not paying attention and truly listening to others?
The lost skill
The best part of human experience is human relationships—the way one person bonds with another regardless of familial ties, sharing feelings and emotions. It is solely on these grounds that people come together to become a part of each other’s journey on this planet. And the key to maintaining these fulfilling connections is communication, of which only one part—talking—is focussed on extensively. Listening, an essential link for successful communication, is not given due importance.
It is quite evident that humans are all similar yet distinct in their own ways, but however much the differences, it is our basic human need to understand and be understood. Listening helps us understand what people really mean when they speak, and it is a great way to bond on a deeper level. Yet, contrary to what we may think, listening is a rare talent. Mostly, our standard reason for listening is to reply—to convey but seldom to receive. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey outlines some common behaviours that are often mistaken for listening and contends that empathic listening, with the intent to really understand what the other is trying to communicate, is the only true form of listening.
Behind this widespread inability to listen lies a major oversight in our system of classroom instruction. We have focussed attention on reading, considering it to be the primary medium of learning, and continually upgraded it. However, our listening competency has been ignored, and, now, we have practically forgotten the art of listening. The conscious decision of listening—using our minds to understand and pay attention to what is said—is something we all need to start cultivating.
Admittedly, however, listening is not an easy task. We live in a time that is louder than ever before: In politics, media, business, and social media everyone is shouting to be heard. And in times of advanced technology, high-speed Internet, and high stress levels, a genuine conversation is extremely valuable where, instead of putting forward one’s opinions, we devote more time listening to one another. This helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure and improve understanding, and resolve conflicts. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. At home, it helps one to communicate better with loved ones.
Listening through a window
We are, essentially, not creatures of logic but emotions, bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity. We take things from our surroundings with a hint of personal bias, and so, how we listen and to whom we listen is also affected by our personal filters. It is important that while listening, one must listen through a window, not a mirror. Presuming what the speaker means hampers our ability to listen. Usually, in our personal relationships, we have an unconscious tendency to tune out people because we think we already know what they are going to say. Parents don’t listen to their children, the root of which lies in the thought that ‘elders know better’ or ‘I know her better than herself.’ While this may be right when children are not yet adults, this kind of preconception leads to miscommunication and emotional distance. On the other hand, children might not pay heed to their parents’ words for similar reasons. Spouses and friends also often display this kind of behaviour when they offhandedly listen to each other, leading to one of them feeling inadequate or unvalued, which eventually draws people apart.
Agreeably, this is a natural behaviour and rarely intentional, but we must keep in mind that even if we know the speaker on a personal level, people are always changing. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us, so none of us are the same as we were last month, last week, or even yesterday. The correct thing to do is to give them the opportunity to speak and actually listen to them.
When I asked a few people if they have someone who truly listens to them, the responses were mixed. Some shared that they do have people in their lives who listen to their woes, which makes them feel light and loved. Ankita, a senior analyst with AXA, said, “I am fortunate to have a few people like that in my life. They make me feel complete and that I can go through every pit and ladder with their support.” Many voiced opinions similar to hers, but others believed that many times, they felt judged and, therefore, chose to not express or share their feelings. Siddharth, an employee of KPMG, shared, “It feels good to have someone with whom I can speak honestly, but, mostly, when I did, I was met with judgements and was bombarded with solutions. I didn’t want that; I just wanted someone to listen and be there for me patiently.” He laughs while adding, “Now I have my dog, Marshall, who listens to me. He may not understand what I say but he always keeps his paw on me when I am done sharing my thoughts. That’s all I need.”
My bubble broke three years ago when a friend came to visit me after a long time. As we got comfortable and talked about personal matters, she opened up about her heartbreak which I was unaware of. Being close friends and having always sought each other’s advice, it didn’t sit well with me that she withheld such important information about her life and chose to suffer alone. I was disheartened to think that I wasn’t the one she turned to in distress. Believing that I could have helped her, guided her, supported her through it all, I itched to express my disappointment. But as I began to protest, she simply asked me to “please just listen.” And it was only with great effort that I could manage to listen to her story.
We have problems listening without interrupting because we have this idea that we know better or may want to add our perspective on things or even, to give unwanted advice, however well-intentioned it may be. Also, the infamous ‘I told you so’ situations are very tempting to point out when someone comes back to you after unsuccessfully doing what you asked them not to. These are the times when we forget that we are not there to validate our advice but to allow the speaker to release their emotions, to help them let out what they hold inside and be there for them.
Although I think it’s a natural inclination to solve problems and interject our own wisdom as we listen, which in turn can actually improve the experience for both parties, we must also ensure that we do not hijack the conversation. More often than not, to express our empathy, we bring our personal experience into the conversation, thus diverting the whole discussion towards something else, leaving the speaker stranded. If we can readjust our focus to provide a venue for the speaker to completely unburden themself, we can make our connections so much more meaningful.
The act of listening is about creating a safe space where your loved ones can let their emotions out, where they could feel free to express themselves without the fear of judgement and interruptions. That space is not a competition or a stage to flaunt our knowledge and experience. To be a good listener, one has to just be there and listen. Listening to your friend or partner can be the antidote to their anger and frustration, and being present to listen to their woes implies that you value them and their worries, and are willing to spare time to resolve their conflicting emotions.
Drop the ego
The eternal hurdle that we have to battle as humans is our ego. Many times, our ego comes in the way of our becoming an unconditional listener. Dale Carnegie’s iconic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, accurately highlights the golden rules of listening: “Be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves, become genuinely interested in other people, try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view, and be sympathetic to the other person’s ideas and desires.”
We open our ears wide when someone speaks in line with our emotions and truths, accepting almost everything they say, making listening altogether too easy. On the other hand, when we hear someone say the things we don’t agree with and that challenge our deeply rooted notions, convictions, or complexes, our brains may become over-stimulated and not in a direction that leads to good listening. We mentally plan a rebuttal to what we hear, formulate a question designed to embarrass the talker, or, perhaps, simply turn to thoughts that support our own feelings on the subject at hand. Driven by our ego, we search for evidence which proves us right in what we believe.
Our fear of being inadequate as leaders, partners, friends, and parents makes us stick tightly to our end of the conversation. We resort to explanations and making others understand our perspective to come to our desired conclusion without actually listening to their point of view. We listen to identify the gap in other people’s understanding and counter accordingly. However, when we drop such fears, we listen from the heart trying to truly understand other people’s perspective. We begin to empathise with them. This allows us to convey our ideas better and paves the way for a healthy conversation.
During conflicts, the ego trap is easy to fall prey to because we pick up words that trigger us and go against our set ideas. To avoid this, we should ignore another person’s words when they are experiencing strong emotions because this makes you reactive. Ignoring the words allows you to move into an egoless state. Further, when you ignore the words, you open up your capacity to pay attention to the emotional experience of another through their body language. As you listen for and guess at those emotions, you become so focussed on the speaker that your ego dissolves. The deeper part of you will come forward and marvel at the connection you have just created. You will feel the Oneness. Founder of The Awakened Living, Marius, says, “To truly listen is to listen with an empty mind. When you are fully aware, there is no you (the ego) in the process. There is only awareness. If you don’t want the ego to take control while listening to others, you need to take control of your reactions. Start with yourself first; practice self-awareness. If you can observe your thoughts without reaction, you can listen to others without being controlled by the ego.”
Learning a new
Listening to others can be regarded as a form of seva (service), where you are lending your ear to others, giving them your attention and time. It is also a gift where you are bestowed with a great level of trust by the speaker as they share vulnerable and personal details about their life. They grant us entry into their life, their world, and offer us unique insights. A beneficiary of leadership coaching conducted by Lolly Daskal, CEO of Lead From Within and author of a Wall Street Journal bestseller, shared on her blog, “Listening to some amazing people that I have been graced to listen to while they share and offer their stories of struggles and strength has brought an amazing light and enabled me to see deeper within myself than I have managed for some time.” Indeed, one of the best ways to expand our horizon is to expose ourselves to other thoughts, ideas, opinions, values, experiences, and perspectives by opening our ears and minds to them.
When we choose to not listen, we harm relationships, we spend time reworking them, and we miss out on an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Sometimes, that ‘someone’ is our own self.
This new decade presents us with an opportunity to start afresh and listen to one another with genuine efforts in the hopes of bringing people together, building trust, promoting compassion and honesty, and enabling every voice to be heard. By becoming better listeners, we can also become better people, as listening bridges the gap between the love we think we have created and the love we have actually created.
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