The Art of Listening

Written by BG Howard

October 19, 2022

When recently engaged in what I thought was a rather intriguing discussion of ideas and relative theories with two guys working at restoring an old Pontiac Firebird, I soon realized my part as one of two silent participants in a three-way conversation. The most vocal of us was allowed the liberty of extensively detailing his thoughts on the process of car restoration without interruption as George, the painter, and I conceded the podium. We had been very attentive to what Eddie, the body man, said and followed up with earnest inquiries as to how he intended to address a particular concern; while maintaining a sincere interest. The communications persisted for more than forty-five minutes to the point Eddie’s vision had been effectively outlined with George and me pretty much in line with the idea.

There seemed to be something of a paradigm shift when the excessively vocal visionary finally yielded the floor. A relatively brief depiction of George’s own method was then presented which only required about fifteen minutes. Oddly enough, Eddie didn’t have any comments nor were there questions posed regarding the option George suggested. I honestly found that somewhat peculiar and, only with my persistence in discussing the matter, did Eddie confirm he’d not really heard much of what George had said.

Outside of feeling a little annoyed at the fact we’d taken out time to speak with someone who obviously had no interest in anyone’s opinion other than his own, my angst derived as much from the thought of how altogether disrespectful the action proved. That incident, instinctively, put me on guard as to the actions of others when talking over the course of the next several weeks. It was only then that I realized just how little seemingly intelligent people actually listen to one another during conversation.

Another interesting observation had me, one day in particular, engaged in a discussion with two other individuals to whom I paid close attention. It became readily apparent that as one person was speaking, the second party was already busy formulating his response to what was being said. So, I question; how then, can the listener effectively hear when his or her focus isn’t on the opinion being expressed but rather, the formulation of an anticipated response?

I applaud the efforts of any person who possesses the capacity to multi-task in any arena but the concept of talking at the same time one listens is comparable to singing while under water. It takes considerably more effort than what’s expended while walking and simultaneously chewing gum. Contrary to what most seem to believe, it is impossible to discern the meaning of information received while in the process of exerting greater effort contemplating an opposing comment.

As such, I find that many people actively engage in conversation and are prone to hearing but have a very difficult time actually “listening.” Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary defines listen: to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true. While the definition of hear: to be aware of (sound) through the ear, is conversely different.

Thusly, one is capable of hearing without listening, which tends to be the case concerning many everyday conversations. This is an issue that would often rear its head when I’d engage in discussion until someone, a true friend, was candid enough to point it out to me. Most of those we call “friend” wouldn’t dare say anything they think might not be well received and, instead, feel more comfortable allowing others to see in us what comes across as offensive. I argue the fact; that isn’t remotely what I’d offer as an example of a true friend.

To combat the vile habit of “over-thinking” conversations, cutting people off or interjecting in the middle of their thoughts, one of the methods I try to employ consists of systematically reviewing my reply mentally prior to verbalizing it. That also makes for a unique “anti foot-in-mouth” mechanism which tends to save time consumed apologizing to others for comments better left unsaid.

Another fool-proof technique entails the practice of inwardly repeating the question or comment posed by the individual with whom I’m engaged in conversation. That is one way to be certain that I heard the remark as well as confirming my understanding of their intent before speaking.

Listening, as with any other learned attribute, can be practiced and even mastered to the degree that it comes as easy as walking; almost like second nature. That’s not to imply, once adept at listening, you’ll never again interrupt someone during conversation. Just as in walking, we sometimes trip (be it over words in this specific case) and are required to regain our balance. I could be wrong but it’s just something to consider

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