What the world needs is good listeners

Published 2:11 am Monday, March 24, 2003

By By Lloyd Albritton
An old man was sitting on his front porch one sunny day, when a friend, another old man about the same age, walked by with his fishing pole over his shoulder. Both men were hard-of-hearing and the conversation went something like this:
This humorous anecdote is a classic snapshot of what happens when two people attempt to carry on a conversation and neither can hear what the other is saying. Unfortunately, conversations like this are all too common among those who are not hearing impaired at all, but rather, are listening impaired. As to the difference, most of us received instruction on precisely this topic very early in our elementary school education. We learned that hearing and listening are not the same thing. Indeed, our teachers insisted that we be listeners of the word, and not hearers only. Many of us worked hard in those early years, under the crack of the teacher's whip, to discipline and develop our listening skills. It is too bad that so many of us abandoned our efforts soon afterward.
Has anyone ever asked you a question, then abruptly interrupted you in the middle of your response to ask you another, entirely unrelated, question? Or, have you ever started answering a question, only to observe the inquirer's mind and eyes wandering away to other distractions? Or, has anyone ever asked you a question, then appeared to look you in the eye and listen attentively to your response, only to offer a totally asinine comment afterward which clearly reflected that this person had not been listening to a word you said, but rather, was utilizing your allocated response time to formulate his or her next expression? These are all common, exasperating behaviorism which I rarely go a whole day without experiencing. I believe most of us are guilty of such behavior at some level, though some are more guilty of it than others.
Many of us were taught by our parents and teachers that it is a good thing to show interest in others by asking questions. We all love to talk about ourselves when someone shows an interest in the things which are important to us, i.e., our favorite hobby, our job, our family. Virtue becomes vice, however, when we ask personable questions and are not willing to listen to the answer.
"Oh, these carvings are so beautiful! How do you do them?"
"Well, I start with a little piece of wood, you see, and . . ."
"Oh, Mercy Me, how I do love your kitchen. How did you ever come up with such an idea?"
"Uh huh, well, I was looking through a magazine one day and . . ."
"Ah, what a cute puppy this is. I have a dog too, you know. Let me tell you about my dog . . ."
Why is it that so many of us are deficient in our listening skills? Do poor listening skills reflect lower intelligence? A hearing impairment? Are good listening skills a gift from God, like say, the "gift of gab?" We often say that great orators are "gifted." It seems logical that if great orators are gifted, then great listeners must be gifted too. But then, that concept would seem to excuse the rudeness of poor listeners, wouldn't it?
"Oh, I'm sorry I was not listening to what you said. I guess I just don't have that gift."
I believe in the concept of human gifts, but I do not believe all human virtues are gifts. Many are skills developed through years of learning and practice. Attentive and perceptive listening is such a virtue. Sometimes we have to simply discipline ourselves to shut up long enough to listen for awhile. I am occasionally amazed at the things I learn when I force myself to quit talking long enough to listen to the other fellow. If there is a "gift" involved in the skill of good listening, it is a gift of the heart, and not of the ear. That is to say, one has to be actually interested in the other person and what that person has to say – more interested in learning than in teaching and dissertating. This is, I believe, a quite simple matter. Even big-mouths will shut up and listen to those things in which they are interested. When we don't listen, it usually means we aren't interested.
Much of our daily discourse takes the form of "figures of speech." We express common greetings in the form of a question when we are not much interested in a real answer. A simple, "How are you doing today?" usually evokes an equally insincere response such as, "I'm fine. And how are you?" Sometimes, however, such greetings are taken literally and we may find ourselves standing on a street corner enduring a lengthy explanation of an acquaintance's entire medical history. Most of us have been caught in this quandary before and we might be forgiven if we spend a wasted hour of politeness going over some old blueprints in our mind instead of actually listening. Still, I think if we ask the question, we should be prepared to listen to the answer. And if we are not interested in the answer, we should not ask the question.
Good listeners are in short supply these days and we could all use more practice at it. Most of history's great discoveries have been serendipitous. Revelations of light and truth often come unexpected when we are looking for something entirely different. To become the beneficiary of light and knowledge, we have to listen up for it. Sometimes it even comes from the mouths of old people and little children who are responding to the simple greeting of, "How's it going?"

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