No matter when or where, people are always surrounded by sounds produced by themselves or the environment. They perceive them with a very sensitive hearing device: people hear. The ear transforms mechanical impulses into electrical impulses and transmits them to the brain, which enables people to “think and experience” the sound, understand it and ascribe it a meaning: people listen. Hearing is a combination of very complex neurophysiological processes, which occur in every person but are also closely connected to people’s narrower social and broader cultural context. Western European civilisation, which began in ancient times, neglects listening. Instead it favours sight, which is believed to be a more “reliable and objective” sense. Consequently, it privileges written language. In the language itself, we can find numerous metaphors which emphasise the visual orientation of the Western European culture. There are numerous collocations related to the eyes and the sight (light), which actually designate thought processes: for example, to highlight a problem, to look for a solution, to get insight into relations, to enlighten people. Literacy – the visual perception of the language – is also considered a symbol of education.
For human beings, one of the most important sounds is the one they create themselves with their vocal chords. Sound researcher Stephen Handel says that “the human voice is a beautiful and unusual instrument that flatters, irritates, seduces, betrays, squeals, grumbles, complains, whispers, screams, speaks, sings.” It creates emotional closeness with the environment and gives people energy.
In the development of linguistic communication, listening is the first and fundamental activity, on which other activities depend, especially speaking and reading, and even writing.
When we listen to someone speak, it is not only about understanding the language, getting to know the world and oneself, but also about creating relationships with other people. And relationships are essential for success at work and for personal happiness. Listening is thus the foundation for literacy and, in the broader sense, for education. However, we rarely devote ourselves to listening. On the one hand, we strive for reading literacy and establish rhetoric and writing clubs and schools. On the other, listening, although an essential part of linguistic communication, remains neglected.
Being listened to is a basic need which enables people to realise themselves as people – social beings that want to be accepted and acknowledged.
In spite of the fact that people have a strong need to be listened to, the majority only wants to speak. Every day we find ourselves in situations where we are supposed to listen but we do not do so because we do not have the time, the will, or the desire. We are concerned with our goals, plans and expectations, as well as with difficulties and problems. The first group – goals, plans and expectations – cause us to listen and hear selectively, which means that we only hear things that are in our frame of thought, confirm our expectations and help us achieve our goals. The second group – difficulties and problems – create inner noise, which prevents us from focusing on other people and listening to them. The greatest concern is that we are not aware of our listening behaviour and its consequences for our life. This is the reason for numerous complaints regarding partners not listening to one another, children not listening to their parents and teachers and vice versa, managers not listening to their colleagues, and politicians not listening to their electors.
Adults are generally bad listeners and do not take responsibility for communication.
Communication is not only the speaker’s responsibility, but also the listener’s. Each of them should assume at least half of the responsibility, or better yet 51% to ensure mutual understanding and agreement. Listening skills are taught by example (if we are not attentive to listening, we do not develop it consciously), so we should not be surprised if children do not develop good listening habits. Similarly, we should not be surprised if teachers think that they are good listeners and that the students are the ones who do not listen to them.
It is a mutual relationship with moral dimensions. Studies suggest that children whose mothers are good listeners are better listeners themselves. The same applies to teachers. Those who are good listeners are more successful in their work: the students trust them and achieve better studying results. Unfortunately, there is a general shortage of listeners in this fast-paced, nanosecond, technological world. We do not have the time or the patience for listening, which appears to be a too slow activity, but at the same time we crave it. That is why social computers of the newest generation are appreciated for their partial ability for empathic listening.
Listening differs in the intention and in the effort it requires from the listener: for example listening to a formal lecture is more tiring than a casual chat, in which the roles of the speaker and the listener rapidly change. Passive listening does not exist. The strongest human need is the need for empathic listening, which requires that we forget about our ego and put it aside for some time, control our feelings and become aware of our prejudices. Besides, a certain amount of modesty does not hurt anybody. Instead of complaining about the speaker, which is often the case, it would be sensible to ask ourselves what we can learn from the speaker. Adults can pronounce around 150 words per minute, but they can think up to three times faster. This discrepancy is often wasted on daydreaming and thinking about other things, for example formulating answers to the speaker, daydreaming or even pretending to listen.
Listening is an especially critical activity for numerous professions that involve working with people.
Teachers, doctors, psychologists, social workers, shop assistants, journalists, solicitors, judges and tourism workers are only some of these professions. For people in leading positions, such as managers, listening is an important critical professional skill. I would also like to point to politicians’ listening, which too often results in simultaneous speaking. Decades ago, American humourist Will Rogers used the following words to describe the American legislative body: “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens. And then everybody disagrees.” In 2010, the then Slovene president Danilo Türk in a radio interview called this unproductive communication “the dialogue of the deaf”.
Since my work has been dedicated to education, I have spent a considerable amount of time listening in schools, especially during lessons, which are the core of my book Poslušanje: način življenja in vir znanja (Listening: A Way of Life and Source of Knowledge). In the past, the focus was mainly on the student’s listening in school, but my work focuses on the teacher’s listening to the students: their speech, their silence and what is not said. For teachers, as for the managers, listening is an important critical activity for leading students to knowledge and understanding. If we want to do that, we have to get to know them and there is no better way of getting to know someone than to listen to them. Teachers, having the power of role models, have a great impact on the development of young people, who are in fact listeners. In schools, listening should become a basic pedagogical principle. Incidentally, teachers also need listeners, not only students but also parents, colleagues and school administrators.
By listening to someone, we accept them and show respect for diversity, which ensures good conditions for conversation, agreement and cohabitation.
This is why we should dedicate more attention to listening. But not only in schools. Firstly, we should strive for a healthy sound environment. Increasing environmental noise obstructs listening and also has negative effects on our health. Many measures have already been taken: for example, numerous countries have introduced legislation on noise control. Secondly, we should strive to share information on listening behaviour and its effects on our personal and professional life. Thirdly, we should focus on exercising and practising discipline, which is essential for changing our listening behaviour. Listening skills can be nursed and developed until an advanced age, not only for professional requirements and success, but also for personal pleasure and the pleasure of those who live with us.
Let us summarise some basic principles of good listening:
- The first and basic rule with no exceptions is that every good listener is focused on the other person. And above all, listeners should always listen in a way that they would want to be listened to.
- Listeners consciously focus on the speaker and on the message. They make eye contact with the speaker and assume an upright but relaxed posture. Bad listeners often do other things while listening, such as playing with something, daydreaming and, what is even worse, pretending to listen.
- Listeners create a stimulating environment for listening and adapt to it if it cannot be altered, for example if the noise cannot be reduced. If a stimulating environment cannot be created, they should focus on the spoken message. Bad listeners are quickly disturbed by circumstances and stop listening.
- Listeners let the speaker finish and control their emotional reactions and mannerisms. Bad listeners often interrupt the speaker, expressing their ideas and assessing the message prematurely.
- Listeners try to understand the message and the speaker. They summarise speaker’s thoughts, seek explanations, ask questions and verify if they understood the speaker correctly. Bad listeners often think that they have understood the speaker.
However, it is useful to bear in mind the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus who said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Author: Lea Plut Pregelj. Author of the book Listening: A Way of Life and Source of Knowledge, which was published in March (in Slovene) by the DZS Publishing House.
Cover photo: Ryan McGuire.
Translated by: Valentina Rebec.