The art of good listening


Mind MovesWhile much is written about the importance of communication, the power of rhetoric and the supremacy of spin, the art of listening receives less attention than it deserves in ordinary everyday life, writes Marie Murray

For listening is an art. It is an art perfected over a lifetime. And while it may be easy to speak, it is not always easy to listen: carefully, conscientiously, respectfully and to engage in no other activity than the act of attending to what another person has to say.

In social situations, conversations are often vigorous, animated debates in which the less verbally assertive in the group may be misinterpreted as being disinterested or as not knowledgeable about the topic being discussed. They may seem to be on the periphery of the group.

After all, where are their comments? Have they no anecdotes? Do they not have a perspective on this? Would they agree or disagree with what is being said and by whom? Why would they remain silent when they could speak?

In groups, it is often the more powerful voices that get heard: the more forceful personalities who express themselves. They are vocal. They are strong. They assert their right to insert their ideas more often than others. Claiming this unjust share of conversational space, they may respond to each person who makes a point in what can be experienced as a controlling, confrontational or evaluative way.

Conversation, which, by definition, requires turn-taking can degenerate into the verbal person taking every second turn to speak with whoever else in the group has the temerity to voice a view. It can become a punctuated monologue, the contributions of others merely catalysts for the dominant person's next idea. This can silence voices that have something important, something different or something reflective to say.

Sometimes the more powerful voices are simply louder, their volume rising above the chorus, they persist when others withdraw from conversational competition and in this way they eventually gain the attention or the subjugation of the group. Sometimes the more powerful voices are those that cannot tolerate silence, that must fill every pause, however brief, that do not want the talk to stray into topics over which they do not have control, superior knowledge or acknowledged expertise.

However, often the loudest voice is, ironically, the most vulnerable voice, needing attention, affirmation, acclamation and admiration. Like the sad comedian, like the joke told against oneself that hides personal pain in self-debasement that pre-empts the anticipated criticism of others, the loudest voice may be the voice that fears it will fade into oblivion if it is not continuously heard.

The loudest voice may never have felt listened to, may have been told too often in childhood not to interrupt and so compensates in adulthood by leaving no room for others to speak.

People who can listen may have been listened to when they needed to be heard. They have learned to speak when they wish to but they do not need to. They have no anxious necessity to impress. They are not afraid of silence. They are not afraid to open their hearts to what other people have to say.

Listening is not waiting to speak, to interject, to use the time when another person talks to formulate one's next point or refute what is being said by the current speaker. Listening is not being distracted. It is not serial monologues passing for exchange. It does not seek confirmation of its own point of view.

Listening is attending to the pauses, the silences, the choice of words, the experiences behind them and the reason why this person has chosen to convey this information at this time in this way. Listening is more than hearing. It is heeding. It is concentration. It is paying attention. It is processing what is being said, waiting to hear the next sentence, the expansion, the emerging ideas and the underlying emotions being expressed by the words. It is intense curiosity in the story that is being told.

Listening is silencing one's own voice to hear someone else. It is wanting to know rather than wishing to inform. It is suspension of self in the service of other. It is not giving advice providing solutions or solving problems. It is silent. It is unselfish. It is reverential. It is healing.

If there is one activity that enhances the security of the child, boosts adolescents' self-esteem, adults' belief in their worth, a feeling of being respected in older adults and gentle interaction with those of advanced age, it is being listened to.

When someone really listens to what we have to say, they show that they care about us, they want to hear our story, they want to understand, they value our point of view, they seek our interpretation, they await access to our emotions, they are patient and prepared to listen for as long as it takes for the story to be told.

Relationships depend on listening. Loneliness means nobody to listen. Anger dissipates when grievances are listened to, without interruption, without retort, without excuse or refutation.

For interpersonal communication may be more about how we hear, than what we say, and how we respond when people call upon us to hear what they have to say.

Clinical psychologist and author Marie Murray is director of the Student Counselling Services in UCD. Her most recent book, Living Our Times, based on her Irish Times columns, is published by Gill and Macmillan.