We have two ears and one tongue. Logically, that means we should be listening twice as much as we speak. The first time I heard this, I was getting told off by a teacher at school for talking too much during a lesson. As soon as the teacher’s back was turned, my friend and I giggled and got right back to chatting away.
My school days are long gone, but that little piece of advice has stuck with me through the years, like a particularly stubborn piece of glitter in the back of my mind. We hear it all the time – “learn to listen”. But do we really know what listening means? And how to listen?
Let’s take a simple scenario – two people having a conversation. From a bird’s-eye view, it doesn’t look much more than what it is at face value – two people having a conversation. Now, let’s zoom in. Before we even begin to think about body language and tone of voice etc, let’s look at the basics – both people taking turns to say something, that’s essentially what conversing is. Let’s zoom in even further. Let’s look at what happens when one person is speaking and the other is supposedly doing what we call listening. More importantly, what is happening between either person’s dialogue when neither is speaking?
This is the most organic kind of listening that we encounter in daily life. As Aristotle said, man is a social animal – it’s pretty hard to get away from having an exchange with another human being at some point. Theoretically, if we’ve only had a lifetime of practice, we should be expert listeners by now… right?
No. If we were, listening wouldn’t be prized as such a skill. I find that the point we miss about listening is our intent. We listen for different reasons. Unfortunately, most of us listen in order to speak. We only listen to what the other person is saying to buy time for ourselves when it comes to thinking of the next witty thing to say, or to come up with something – anything – to fill the impending silence when the other person has finished talking.
Don’t be that person. Listen with the intent of listening. Take a step back from the limelight, and consider what the other has to say. Put yourself in their shoes, despite the fact that what comes out of their mouth might sound like complete nonsense to you and you might disagree with it, immediately forming a judgment. Delay that step. Take the time to listen to them without necessarily having a good retort up your sleeve.
Ever notice how musicians seem to make something out of nothing? Whether it’s plucking on some stretched rubber bands, or blowing over the mouths of bottles, it never fails to amaze and draw a crowd – doesn’t matter how big. This brings me on to my next point – listen to the world around you. I have a special admiration for DJs and musicians who make mix tapes out of ordinary sounds in daily life – be it a ringing telephone, footsteps on wooden floorboards or the general hubbub of a coffee shop – it’s a work of art.
Take a step back and listen to the world around you. It’s easy to hear noise and sounds, but put this aside for a minute. Be in tune with everything that goes on around you. Close your eyes. Pick out individual sounds and listen to them. Discover new sounds that you’d never noticed until now. Marvel at the way they all come together to form this ongoing soundtrack in life that you’ve always taken for granted.
Like many endeavours in life, it’s often easy to forget the person at the centre of it all. You. We don’t take nearly enough time to listen to ourselves. Yes, we all have busy lives and to-do lists that seem to get longer every day. Chores don’t really have a habit of getting themselves done, and procrastination doesn’t help much either.
That’s no excuse.
Listening to yourself is your anchor in the chaos of life. Whether it’s listening to your gut instinct – there might just be a reason you’ve always been particularly wary of a certain colleague – or asking yourself what your priorities really are when you’re faced with a tough decision. It’s not something that requires hours of meditation to discover. Strip it right down to the basics, and ask yourself what you’d really think if you’d never heard everyone else’s opinions. Ask yourself why you think those things, and take note of the first responses you come up with. Those tend to be the most truthful. After all, if we don’t listen to ourselves, how can we possibly claim to be capable of listening to others?
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. Whether you’ve had particularly frustrating experiences of being heard but never truly listened to, or if you know someone who happens to be a great listener and you appreciate them to no end – I’d love to hear it. I’ll be listening! You go girl.