On speaking and listening

“The louder a man shout’s, the more profoundly he’s wrong” (Gallagher 2009)

One early evening, around 5.30pm, I caught a bus from Northampton town centre, a routine commute after work, travelling back to my home town Kettering. It was a slow journey and I was in a particularly stilled frame of mind, senses keen and thoughts clear. I decided to listen in to the conversations of my fellow passengers. It dawned on me that many of us, given the correct social setting, will talk and talk and talk, without communicating a single interesting idea, without contributing anything of substance to the discussion. Why is it that we to0 often invest such energy into talking but fail so triumphantly at not actually saying anything of consequence.

The art of storytelling, of truly connecting to a person through speech has been lost. Television, smart phones, social media, and cultural shifts at large have made the once tribal celebration of speech, the art of talking, unnecessary. We now communicate feelings more aptly through abbreviated digital messages than we do through talking. Spiritually connected to the wafer-thin glass-fronted box of lights than we are with each other.

And if we have lost the art of talking, how then does this affect our ability to listen?

Like those on the bus, often our egocentric nature relentlessly drives us to have our say. Our inability to sit back and absorb a conversation results in nothing more than driving a conversation into a debate, a verbal abyss where no wisdom is conveyed nor any connection made. Now this may be expected on a cramped bus, already swamped with the noise of traffic and commuters, but let’s now take this example and place it in a care setting, or among the elderly, or in a therapeutic environment where listening is fundamental to all those involved.

In a care-home environment, often the only pleasure for its residents is to be listened to – the opportunity to tell a story and rejoice in having somebody kind enough to listen, to share in their experience. Empathy cannot be achieved without being able to listen, and in the fields of psychotherapy this is essential, it is primal and it is something modern man has forgotten. When working with Kettering MIND the following exert was given to me on the instruction that I read it before beginning my training in the skills of listening:

To hear, one must be silent, says a wise man to his apprentice in a fantasy novel. The silence extends to calmness, as far as possible in the physical setting, but in any case within the listener. Yet the silence is far from passive: active listening, albeit watching, thoughtful monitoring of oneself – all go to make up the skills of listening, enabling us the better to hear what the speaker is really saying. Only then dare the helper presume to speak.” (Jacobs, 1985)

At the end of a particularly riveting lecture on Business Information Systems I, having remained silent throughout the discussion, I was asked my opinion on the subject. More to satisfy my tutor’s curiosity than contribute, I spoke my mind. Just before I left the lecture hall my tutor pulled me aside and said this: I talk little but what I say is profound. This has stayed with me over the years, and has confirmed the importance of active silence, of truly listening.

Like a virus, this slow decay of our ability to talk and listen may affect our other senses, a slow death of the instincts transforming us into slaves of our own advances.

We live busy stressful lives, always connected and available on-demand, indeed actor and comedian George Carlin one described modern man as “a high-tech low life”, “a top gun bottom feeder” “a raging workaholic, and a working rageaholic” – spoken with true wisdom during his his 2005 stand-up, Life is worth Losing

During a 6 mile walk through rich fragrant blossom filled streets my senses were on overdrive, I stopped at nearly every tree, every flower, and simply breathed the air, filling my very soul with sunshine. I realised then that smell is potentially another endangered sense – think about it – when was the last time you walked down the street and simply smelled? When did you last smell a flower, when was the last time you acknowledged the freshness early morning rain or the sweetness of blossom, the earthy smell of fresh tilled soil?

This deprivation of sense may be seen to effect memory – and with dementia on the increase in the over 60s are all these things contributing factors? Are we really that disconnected to our instinctual primal abilities – are we dead on the inside?

[recommended reading: The Alchemy of Voice by Stewart Pearce: yes it’s a form of self-help book but I discovered this great read during my studies in 2004, its informative writings on the origins of speech and its use in modern times was enlightening, and complimentary when looking into the art of listening – how often do we listen to ourselves (listen to how we speak not just what we say)?

—[more on this to come]—

* Gallagher, B: The Prisoner: 2009, AMC and ITV television miniseries.

* Jackons, M, 1985

 


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