Our era is the shoutiest humanity has ever known. Thanks to the digital revolution, especially the emergence of social media, everyone can have an opinion. Indeed, many feel compelled to voice an opinion, to be a critic on most aspects of life. Many also succumb to the lure of the censorious mob, seeking to drown out dissent or unwoke heresy. Negativity and antagonism are the prevailing moods. Yet is anyone listening to what we are saying? More to the point, are such complaints, comments and grumblings making us more miserable? Perhaps it’s time we spent less time talking and more time listening. For there is the path to enlightenment and happiness.
This is the advice from Kate Murphy in You’re Not Listening, What You’re Missing and Why It Matters. Incessant online vociferating not only makes us unhappy — when we realise that no one really cares what we are saying — but it also makes us more stupid. The more we voice our opinions, the more we become convinced of them. It is the route towards complacency and stupor. People who listen, on the other hand, open themselves to the brave new worlds of doubt and mental exploration. “It is only by listening that we engage, understand, connect, empathise, and develop as human beings.” Listening, says Murphy, not only makes us happier, it makes us more clever.
Good listeners — priests, psychotherapists, air-traffic controllers, bartenders, spies, conmen — usually come up with the best solutions. It’s because they come to understand the complexities of life, that choices aren’t binary, that questions are often more fruitful and interesting than answers. The late Steve Jobs, for instance, used to hire people at Apple to disagree with him. The founder of Ikea used to wander his shop floor anonymously asking customers their opinions of his wares.
The best CIA operatives are not the aggressive interrogators and or those who feign empathy with mandatory eye-contact, a rudimentary nod of the head or insincere “Mmm-mmm”, but those who let prisoners tell their own life stories. Bringing forth such subjective perspectives better helps agents understand perpetrators’ world-view and motives. As one CIA chief interrogator told the author, “Even if you can’t get through to the suicide bomber, it helps you maybe get through to the guy later on, who is on the fringe or who is on the fence. You can relate to him after meeting the guy who took that wrong turn.” In a similar vein, the best hostage negotiator is not the man who deploys the best argument or conjures up some subconscious Jedi mind trick, but the man who tries “to understand the guy’s point of view”.
The most common cause of strife between a child and parent, writes Murphy, is when the former believes the latter isn’t listening. A failure to listen is also the cause for much marital breakdown. We assume we understand what those close to us feel, want or need. “As wonderful as intimacy and familiarity are, they make us complacent, leading us to overestimate our ability to read those closest to us.”
Often it’s the better-educated with high IQ levels who are the worst listeners
Listening isn’t the same as passive hearing, and the author stresses the importance of it being an interactive process. Researchers at the University of Utah found that when talking to inattentive listeners, speakers remembered less information and were less articulate in the information they conveyed. On the other hand, attentive listeners elicited more information, relevant detail, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions.
Good listeners are good questioners, too. This doesn’t mean repeating impersonal, mundane questions such as “how was school?” but asking curious questions such as “what did you learn today?” or “what was the best part of your day?”.
Listening has become more difficult not merely because of technology — mobile phones, podcasts, social media, louder background music in restaurants, headphones that drown out one’s inner dialogue — but because of an allied culture of individualism, self-promotion and identity politics. We are subconsciously goaded to say things like “speaking as a white man” or “speaking as a woman of colour”. Murphy quotes Pascal Bruckner’s The Temptation of Innocence, in which he writes: “Everyone must sell himself as a person, in order to be accepted.”
Such a focus on the self, on one’s opinions, reinforced by incessant speaking and opining, only fortifies our convictions and closes our horizons. In turn, those with the firmest convictions become even worse listeners. And often it’s the better-educated and those with high IQ levels who are the worst listeners, being so adamant that they needn’t learn anything from anyone else.
A vicious circle ensues. Our shouty society hardens convictions, which necessitates turning up the volume further. Ultimately, this is why public dialogue today has become so antagonistic and fractious (see Brexit). For instance, neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when people’s political views are challenged the amygdala region of the brain (the site of the primitive fight or flight reaction) lights up as if being chased by a bear. The amygdala is also what causes road rage or makes someone tweet vitriol so out of proportion when their political opinions are questioned. And when we are in fight, flight or freeze mode it is incredibly hard to reason or listen.
Murphy, a journalist and contributor to the New York Times, spent much time listening to experts while putting together You’re Not Listening (the best journalists should also be the most curious listeners), and the result is generous, humane and all too necessary. At a time when the bilious nature of public discourse seems to escalate by the day, it’s time that we all stopped speaking and started listening — and this even includes listening to ourselves, to what our inner dialogue is saying. It will make us smarter, happier and more content people.
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