The Art of Listening
Animals and humans have different sensory organs to take in inputs from their environments. These inputs help us perceive the world and act accordingly. If we perceive something as food, we consume it to relieve ourselves from hunger. If we perceive something as a threat, we run away from it or take measures to be safe. We see through our eyes, taste through our tongue, feel through our skin, smell through our nose and finally hear through our ears. But of all the sensory inputs, our ears perhaps play a significantly different role. We have understood the importance of each sensory input like smell, touch and taste through experience. But what we hear and see is more important than you think. Especially in a world run by information, overloaded by data, we need to be able to understand everything that comes our way.
Sadly, listening has never held much importance in the public eye as speaking has, which is ironic, considering people speak so that others listen. We are always eager to express but impatient to listen. We love being the one giving advice but our ego gets hurt when we have to take it. Shouldn’t the one spreading knowledge also be the recipient of it the most? After all, we all came in this world with nothing and we can only give back to the world what we have received from it. Everything we know has been accumulated, our thoughts, our beliefs, our ideas, our views, our morals, from the world that is around us. As kids, we are eager to learn from this world, from our parents, our teachers, our friends, our siblings, from television, from books, from the internet. But as we grow up, most of us, we form a secluded mindset that becomes our identity. All that we have learned and heard and saw, mix up to form this complicated mixture of what we like to call, ‘who we are’. People often like to say ‘this is who I am’ and this idea of yourself makes you limited. It stops you from being an eager, curious child and turns you into a boring adult who lives life on a train running on the same old track.
Listening is not the ability to hear sounds. A mouse can listen to a sound and identify a threat. But as humans, we haven’t come this far in the animal hierarchy just by being able to avoid threats. We are on top of the chain because of our ability to communicate and cooperate in large groups, a skill that is lacking in every other species on this planet. As humans we have formed complex languages (hundreds of them) that allow us to spread ideas and argue for or against them, try them out, discuss learnings from the success or failure and move ahead. All of this is possible only when one party is willing to listen to the other.
Most people confuse listening with agreeableness. When you offer your ear to someone, your time and your patience, it doesn’t mean you agree with every word they say. It means you agree to listen to their perceptive, wholeheartedly, without preconceived notions, and then use your judgement to decide whether the information passed on to you is worth keeping or not.
You might also think that explaining the art of listening is unnecessary, that every human in the world is capable of listening and understanding other people but if this were true, we would have no conflict among countries, no distaste among the poor for the rich, no wars among different civil groups and certainly no publicly aggressive and scornful debates on social media. There is so much disagreement in the world right now that people are questioning if whether globalization and global connectivity is actually a good thing.
Why don’t children listen to their own parents who they claim are their most favorite people in the world? Why do we go to schools where we pay to get knowledge but get sleepy in class? Why are there so many people intolerant of other people’s views? Why does everything you hear and read have to anger you and get on your nerves? Why is it so difficult to listen through ears which are always open (unlike our eyes which when needed we can close shut)?
It’s because as we grow into teenagers (and then adults), we make everything we gather from the world a part of ourselves. What we perceive as good or important we absorb it within ourselves, making it who we are and this is where we stop listening to other people, and this is what breeds conflict. I am all for debates and discussions and brain storming and group thinking but there’s a difference between being in discussion and being in conflict. Conflict raises aggression and dislike towards the other party which in turn builds distrust. Once you lack trust in someone, even if they give you good information in the future, you stop listening to them. And this is where people lose relationships, which is arguably one of the most important aspects of human success.
Whether in business, sports, music, everyone succeeds based on the levels of relationships they have formed. The most successful of businessmen form great relationships with the people they lead. It may not be a friendly relationship. Steve Jobs was never friends with most of his employees but they revered him like a god and that’s a form of a successful relationship because it encourages loyalty. In sports, if you have a good relationship with your team mates, it creates a better environment for the entire team to grow together and achieve their goals. This is true in every situation where a group is involved including among family members.
This is why listening to other people, especially to people who can impact your life, is consequential to your life. Listen with the intent to understand, not to agree or disagree. Listen to broaden your perspective and open your mind to unexplored horizons. Listen to walk on paths that you haven’t walked on before and walk away from them if they don’t lead to your goals. But don’t stay inside the bubble of your head, sleeping in the dreams you made up for yourself, because when the time comes and life decides to tell you something you have refused to listen for a while, it won’t be pretty.