The Lost Art of Listening

Today’s culture encourages us towards the paths of individualism and independence, and thus too, to outgrow the need for attention to others. Yes, we can think and act on our own, but what defines and sustains us is also the web of relationships. Even as independent adults, we have moments when we cannot clarify what we feel until we talk about it with someone who knows us, who cares about what we think, or who is at least willing to listen.

Contemporary pressures, however, have regrettably, shrunk our attention span and impoverished the quality of listening. We live in hurried times, when we zoom from one meeting to another, when dinner is something we zap in the microwave and keeping up with latest books and movies means reading the reviews. Too tired to talk and listen, we settle instead for the lulling charms of electronic devices that project pictures, make music, or bleep across display screens. We may unconsciously be doing this to counteract the dimming of the spirit we feel when no one is listening.

How did we lose the art of listening? The answers are debatable (though I’ll make some attempts) but what is not is the fact and experience that the loss leaves with an ever-widening hole or vacuum in our lives. It may begin with a vague sense of discontent, sadness and deprivation. Or we may miss the sustenance of receiving (or lending) an attentive ear. Over time, however, this lack of listening invades our most prized relationships – spouses and families – and we end up disappointing or hurting each other by failing to acknowledge what each other says.

The Blessings of Listening: Why It Is So Important

In the first place we need to ask, why is listening so important? My first response is simply, because of the need to be understood. Few motives in human experience are as powerful as yearning to be understood. Here’s what one of my favorite authors, Paul Tournier, has to say: “It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. No one can develop freely in this world and live a full life without feeling understood by at least one other person.”

Conversely, we can say that it hurts not to be listened to. Nothing hurts more than the sense that people who are close to us (e.g., spouse!) aren’t really listening. Children complain that parents are too busy arguing or lecturing to hear their side of things. Friends, usually a source of shared understanding, are often too busy to listen to one another these days. Even a little thing like an unanswered email or phone message, can leave someone disappointed – and troubled. If oversight can hurt, what more if the subject is of real importance to the speaker.

We never outgrow the need to communicate what we think or how it feels. That’s why a sympathetic ear is such a powerful force, and failure to be heard and understood so painful. To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, appreciate and be moved.  We don’t realize how important being listened to until we feel we’ve been deprived or cheated out of it.

The person who listens well acknowledges and affirms us. That validation leads to the second value of listening – self-affirmation, also known as self-respect. In other words, being listened to nourishes our sense of worth; it helps us grow up feeling secure. It validates our existence and identity.

The need for affirmation is closely related to the need for appreciation and expression. Through being listened to, we discover ourselves as understandable and acceptable. We need others (especially parents, spouse or confidants) to let us be people in our own right, individuals with legitimate ideas, emotions and aspirations. It satisfies our need for self-expression and thereby to feel connected to others. As noted above, we define and sustain ourselves in relationships, in conversation with others. Recognition – being listened to – is the response from another that makes our feelings, actions, and intentions meaningful. Our lives are coauthored in dialogue. And listening is critical to the formation of a strong and healthy self and to the formation of strong and healthy relationships.

The Barriers & Difficulties to Listening: An Uphill & Unnatural Task

But why is listening so difficult and empathy so hard to come by? That’s the second important question that beckons us. As noted at the very beginning, part of it is due to the external culture of individualism and activism. But there are many other reasons.

Sometimes, people don’t hear us because they have had a bad day. Others may be preoccupied with angry things someone said or with all the extra work they have to do. The context of communication is also important – the time, place, and who else is present. If a wife calls her husband at work and starts to talk at length about something that doesn’t seem terribly important, he may get impatient more than if the same conversation occurred at home. (Unfortunately, in many relationships spouses have different preferred times to talk!).

It is also hard to listen to people who are too lengthy and go into details or who talk incessantly about their preoccupations, e.g., a mother with difficult child, a careerist about his work, or a man with allergies. A person’s headache can become another’s if he or she has to hear about it all the time! And it’s not just the repetition we are weary of but being cast in the helpless role of one who is importuned about a problem with no solution, or at least no solution the complainer wants to consider.

Another reason why we do not have an attentive heart or alert ears is that we have open mouths! The great talker is rarely a good listener, and never is the ear more firmly closed than when anger takes over. That’s possibly the reason why the apostle James advocates: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger” (Jas 1:19).As compulsive talkers we prefer to talk, give advice or volunteer information than to confess our ignorance and gain from the wisdom of others. 

By nature, we are also not good listeners. Watchman Nee, a great Chinese Christian leader has this to say: “Alas, very few Christians are good listeners. We shall have to take ourselves rigorously in hand if we are to acquire hearing ears. Our ears must be trained to listen. It is possible to pay scant attention to what people say to us, because we are so impressed with the importance of what we wish to say to them. We are just waiting for an opportunity to break in and take up the role of speaker again, assuming naturally, they will meekly accept the role of good listeners.” 

A vital requirement for listening is to genuinely take an interest in what the other has to say. To do so, we must suspend the interests of the self. And that’s where the problem lies – the inability or unwillingness to suspend our own needs (and reactions). A well-known marriage therapist, Michael Nichols, puts it succinctly and incisively: The act of listening requires the submersion of the self and the immersion of the other.

This is by no means easy. We are by nature, selfish or egoistic people. Listening is an active process that calls us to take a deliberate effort to suspend our own needs and reactions. To listen well, we must hold back what we have to say and control the urge to interrupt or argue. Some are too concerned with controlling or instructing or reforming the other than to be truly open to his or her point of view. Parents have trouble hearing their children as long as they can’t suspend their urgent need to set them straight. To be sure, most people aren’t eager to be changed by someone who doesn’t take the time to understand them.

I should add that in my experience as a marital therapist, one of the major reasons couples don’t listen to each other is because of defensiveness or emotional reactiveness. Of course, this can happen in other kinds of relationships too. Something in the speaker’s message triggers hurt, anger or fear, which activates defensiveness and blocks understanding. And perhaps the hardest messages for us to listen to without reacting emotionally are those that involve criticism.

How do we overcome these challenges and recover the lost art of listening? Read on the next post (reflection) on Listening Well.