The Very Rough Art of Listening

Listen up, all you listless listeners: you may want to amplify your attending skills as a new academic year approaches. Maria Shine Stewart suggests why.

August 12, 2011

How many people in your professional life listen to you? No, I mean really listen. Not advise. Not compete. Not interrupt. Not use your sentences as a segue into their own maybe-formidable ideas. Not misinterpret what you’re saying and then launch into a diatribe. If you’re fortunate, you do indeed have a cadre of people you can mobilize as a sounding board around you – at work and even at play – when you wish to be heard.

And if you’re not that lucky at this moment, perhaps you might think back to an individual who consistently silenced the background noise of his or her own mind to let you speak and even extend your own register. That really good listener might have been a teacher… an early mentor… a friend outside of academia… a family member. From the incredible space of true listening -- without charge -- it is likely that you were able to grow.

Admittedly, some people talk -- or harangue -- without a clear end in sight, and that can sound like the whirring of a hamster on a squeaky treadmill.

Most anyone’s patience would wane under such conditions. And then there is something different in the listening-speaking equation: fear, perhaps due to a power differential -- when everyone stops in their tracks and pulls voices back to a whisper, if that. I wonder about such phenomena. Do some in authority really want to wield power like a mute button? What if those who are muted have helpful insights, given a chance to speak?

I recently enjoyed a conversation with a former student who has been in the United States under two years, and like other students has sometimes felt misunderstood and rejected by native speakers of English. She offered me a startling insight that got me thinking further about listening. “They think that how we talk is how we think,” she said --- "they" being those impatient with a halting vocabulary or syntactic glitches.

I grew up in a neighborhood in which every other house, including my own, featured accented English --- so that is comforting to me on a very deep level. But frustration has moved this perceptive student to tears more than once, brushing up against the iciness of others not especially attuned to accents. The only way to get better at speaking is to speak, even if others are rolling their eyes, sighing or squirming in impatience. And her story reminded me of other encounters I have had – or observed -- with speakers of English as a second language, the vast majority of whom I have found to be successful, gracious students. (I won’t go the way of comparing non-native and native-speakers of English in class – that’s been done, with an avalanche of attention.) Insensitivity to the “outsider” (who, in reality, is a fellow member of a global community) is not strictly a campus occurrence; it can happen anywhere.

This student’s remarks struck a very personal chord, reminding me of how others may have judged my own father, who -- emigrating to the U.S. at age 47 after World War II -- had already learned four other languages, survived massive trauma and sincerely struggled with English. It is a shame that the same they – and I – had not taken more time to listen to him.

William Golding in “Thinking as a Hobby” identifies three grades of thinking -- from feeling (grade 3, the lowest) to the detection of contradictions (grade 2) to original insight (the hardest to achieve, grade 1). Perhaps “listening as a hobby” could run along a similar continuum. Many could earn a C for careless, and others a B for borderline and a rare few achieve an A for attentive.

Have you ever attended a meeting -- or been on a listerv -- in which a few don’t only chime in, they’re ringing the bells day and night? And it’s difficult for anyone else to get a word in edgewise? As in jazz, it’s necessary to play as a group and to stop to let the soloists do what they will. There will always be some who are more introverted and reflective, and others, outgoing and spontaneous. Mix it up a little.

Distraction while listening worries me -- a lot. Widespread and concurrent cell phone conversations, texting and compulsive web searching all led a fellow student in my night class recently to suggest: “We are becoming a nation of screen addicts.” If we are attending to visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimuli simultaneously, can we attend to others’ speech deeply enough -- and even the meandering of our own thoughts?

I spent most of summer break a decade ago with only faint hearing in both ears; it was a frightening ordeal caused by an extended infection. I was edgy, irritable and worried. It was difficult to concentrate, although I poured out my frustration into the piano, relying on finger positions and the memory of music to keep going. As I gradually recovered most – not quite all – of my hearing and headed into an annual back-to-school meeting, I realized I would have to listen twice as hard as before; my ears were no longer like speakers in ready synch with one another. It was an adjustment, an effort, and that is perhaps why I am so drawn to the character of John Singer in Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; though he is both deaf and mute, he strives to listen with his heart.

And a summer long before that, as an undergraduate in a public speaking course, I was well-rehearsed for a presentation. While some of my peers spoke on investing in mutual funds and others urged fitness programs, I -- maybe predictably – argued that people should consider journaling at least three times a week for 20 minutes to expand their creativity and express themselves. As I spoke, everything was fine until I looked at my teacher. It was not judgment in his eyes that stunned me into silence; it was sheer compassion. My mind went blank – 5, 10, 15 seconds… maybe more?

I had great teachers throughout school, but more often than not, I listened to them – rarely vice versa. My professor was a grade-A listener.

Like all life skills, listening does not reach one’s peak early in life only to decline thereafter — unless we let it. Perhaps on a kinder campus there might be passion for listening to the pauses, to risk a little silence and to celebrate human speech for what it is: a gift.

For my father.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a new column, A Kinder Campus, which explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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