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Listening-a Tough Business

Updated: May 31

An ear in the style of Van Gogh drawn with Bing Image generator

We are given two ears and one mouth to listen more than we talk,  Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, said.


“When people talk, listen completely. Most never listen.” Ernst Hemingway claimed.


Malcolm Forbes, the creator of the Business magazine which bears his name advised, “The art of conversation lies in listening,” 


A google search shows no dearth of books on how to listen. Titles abound, The Sacred Art of Listening, Why Don’t We Listen Better, and How to Listen with Intention to name a few.  


Yet, while the importance of being a listener is never disputed, a Harvard Business Review 2018 article says, people's ears work well enough but in general people don’t know how to listen. People retain only half of what someone says at best.  And this is true in work, friendships, and marriage. 


My wife sat down on the couch next to me, a Christmas family photo postcard in hand and began to share with me the importance of the people in the card. 


Youtube was on, distraction. My chrome laptop sat in front of me, a distraction. As she related her experiences, I looked and nodded. She made a reference to how much her cousin’s husband looked like her cousin’s father. Being a scientist at heart she said, more rhetorically than wanting an answer from me, “I wonder if that’s evolutionary preference at play.” 


Ah, my subconscious said, an opportunity to interject all-about-me and my knowledge into the occasion. In her mid sentence, I said, “So, how does that theory relate to us?” 


“Oh,” she said. “ Well, uh, I don’t know. Uh, …. “ She looked at me. I’d thrown her off her course of talking about her cousins in the picture. 


I’d become instantly more concerned with what crossed my radar screen than simply listening to my wife talk about her childhood memories. 


Why we don’t listen 


Interrupting is a common reason people don’t listen, according to the Harvard article. People often interrupt to get in their words of evaluating and imposing their solutions to what is being said. 


The article notes that there is a tendency for persons to stop listening to another once the listener has a question about what is being said. Or, the listener has an answer to a dilemma and is ever-ready anxious to expound on it.


According to Corine Jansen, Director of the Global Board, noting a University of Indiana study done on brain imaging of men and women, the genders listen differently. One gender might not listen any better, but women tend to listen with both hemispheres of their brains while men tend to listen with only the analytical left side, not always grasping the emotional piece of what is being said.


Most people just want to be listened to. But the ME need of the listener often gets in the way in the communication process. 


Ego, that personality piece Monsignor Freud created, starts developing  in the first years of life and is juxtaposed to how to listen. The ego is part of our conscious mind that gives us our identity. The part  of us we consider the self. Listening is about the other person, which means letting go of the ego need on the part of the listener.  But one has to be educated into the practice of letting go.


Children are schooled on how to talk and write often in the first person, but taught little about the dynamics of listening. Possibly, because few teachers themselves are good listeners. 


The Harvard Business Review story says, listening is tough business; some managers who listen feel they are losing power, unless they impart their viewpoints. And it’s risky because when someone listens they enter another’s perspective, which can be scary because that could mean contemplating change on the part of the listener.


In our culture, people show up on counselors' doorsteps because they have no one at home to listen to them.  But even then they often don’t get a dose of what they need.  


Having been a mental health practitioner for over 20 years, my wise old mentor, a bushy eyebrowed psychologist, said, too many therapists are more worried about what they feel they need to say next. And consequently miss what their client needs are when the client is letting go with it all. Therapists are hellbent on being seen as the expert. They equate talking with being an expert.


I know the clients I have more successful relationships with, I spend 80 percent of the time listening. When I find myself doing more of the talking, then I know I need to rethink my counseling style. 


Talk therapy is put down by many mental health gurus and some claim it’s outdated;  Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, says being  listened to is key to better mental health. In his treatment of young persons, especially young men, Peterson claims, young men have troubles, but nothing that 10,000 hours of good listening won’t help. But so few have no one to talk to. 


What’s it comes down to


Tara Swart, a psychiatrist turned life coach and author of The Source says listening comes down to the nature of things. A neurochemical, cortisol, is released when we are in fight or flight mode. It propels us to where we need to go. But when we are in states of joy, the hormone oxytocin does its part to provide a feeling of well being. The trick of better mental health is to be in a state of joy or near to it. Having someone to talk to is like journaling where one writes out feelings and concerns, Swart says. 


Coffee with a good friend who listens to us engenders feelings similar to joy.  If we are lucky enough to have a mate who understands the art of listening, then we get doses of the joy hormone regularly.  


Ultimately, a person has to want to listen. Perhaps when we feel that quick urge to respond to someone just to give them our two cents, practicing the count-to-ten technique is in order.  


The Stoic way is to pause before one speaks. Doing so, offers respect to the talker, but also allows the listener to question whether what you have to say is useful and important. 


The sources in this essay were found from my readings and google searches. 


1 Comment


Thought provoking as usual. It occurs to me that the act of reading a writer's blog is a type of listening. It has the added benefit of rereading important passages, looking up unfamiliar words (juxtaposed! ) and double checking famous author's names (Ernst)🙂.

We are both extremely lucky to have a good listener named Cindy.

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