With the ease and speed of communications these days, the emphasis seems always to be on telling people things, talking, conveying information. Listening always seems to take a back seat.
One reason for people not listening as well as they might is the endless distractions from other forms of communication. The mobile phone on the dinner table has become a bone of contention and I, for one, hate it. Of course, if something vital is going on, you need to be contactable and able to respond instantly, but if it isn’t you don’t. Put the damned thing out of sight and earshot and let’s have an uninterrupted conversation.
The ‘respond instantly’ thing is another element that erodes good listening. Because we all expect each other to react to our electronic communications within minutes of our issuing them, this leaves no time for reflection. Even face to face, if someone doesn’t start speaking as soon as we’ve stopped, we tend to assume they haven’t heard us or they have nothing to contribute, when in fact they may be thinking about what we’ve said and considering their reply.
So often, the real message is not in the words themselves but in the tone, the accompanying body language and in what is left unsaid. This is why we have to be especially careful when communicating by email, text and other media where views and feelings are expressed through words alone. But the problem, where there is one, usually goes much deeper than this.
In many cases, the reason people fail to listen adequately is that they are too self-absorbed to tune into what someone else is saying. If I tell you I’ve hurt my foot, what I’d like in return is some interest and sympathy, not a long list of your own ailments. If I tell you I’ve lost my job, I’ve got a new car or I’ve just come back from Cuba, what I want is for you to engage with what I’ve said, not take it as an invitation to talk about your own situation.
Listening is a skill worth cultivating. Not only does it nurture our relationships, it also allows us to learn all sorts of things we would otherwise have missed. Polonius’s advice to his son in Hamlet, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice”, is not so much about teaching Laertes to respect and value other people as encouraging him to reflect on what he hears, gather information, not jump to conclusions. As the Roman Epictetus said (along with many others after him), “We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk the less”.