Attentive Listening, the Missing Link in Productive Conversation


Life, with all of its knots and tangles, is a maze of carefully intertwined things and cruel distractions from the need to understand the connections themselves. The world’s elements (people, situations, and things), as casual and carelessly thrown about as they may appear, are anything but casually and randomly scattered about the place; accordingly, these seemingly disconnected, casually thrown about things are often treated exactly that way. The exigent need to connect dots, dot I’s, and cross T’s is, more often than not, marginalized and ignored. One of the areas where this horrid kind of sidelining occurs is in the area of listening. Unfortunately, most people have devalued the critical and acute need to listen to what is being poured into their ears. This quaint oxymoron is an unfortunate one indeed. Somehow or other, most people have unwittingly cultivated the notion that what others are saying is not that important—of course they do not say those words with their mouths, but the context of their behavior amounts to exactly that.

Dozens of reasons account for most people’s poor listening habits, and while a full discussion on the factors that foster poor listening is well beyond the scope of this article; perhaps, the principal reason that most people are lousy listeners is the casualization of what is being said by their collocutor. Somehow or other, people are socialized to casualize what is being said to them, especially in informal everyday talk—and indeed, most of this everyday chatter is small talk that does not amount to much. But I will tell you this: The little to which it amounts is paramountly important and can dramatically change your life forever. Marginalizing listening is a dangerous game that millions unwittingly play every day—and boy, the exorbitant price they pay for it. Small talk often contains dangerous red flags that careless, disgusting listeners ought to see.

The machinery of modern science is just about the most important societal institution in the world: Virtually everyone depends on its amazing genius and productiveness, and uncounted comforts and amenities. In this regard, modern science is a highly regarded and respected institution in our contemporary global society. One may ask, “Why is modern science so important in today’s world?” Well, just look around: Just about everything that you see, touch, think about, and use every day are products of modern scientific ingenuity and wizardry. Again, you might say; “Well, Mr. Writer, what does modern science have to do with listening?” And indeed, the question is a germane one. The notion of modern science is merely mentioned here to make a point: Science derives practically all of its strength and importance from mere observation. Observation is the core of scientific inquiry, ingenuity, innovativeness, and productivity. And here is how all this is related to listening: Listening is the flip side of scientific observation.

Listening is to human discourse what observation is to modern science. Just like you would be shocked to realize how much knowledge is generated by merely observing people, things, occurrences, places, and situations—and that is what science does—you would be stunned by how much information passes through your ears and are simply lost every single day. A sizable portion of that information amounts to stuff that you need, but to which you pay little or no attention whatsoever. The point that is made here is that listening is a very consequential art that has been largely ignored by human beings. In the least, people can, and should, benefit immensely from the tremendous treasure that is bound up in good listening. It is a priceless gem that is replete with valuable information: It tells you who people are, what they are saying to you, and exactly how to interact with them.

In most cases though, people do not readily give you all this information so that you can have it at your disposal for handy future reference and use; in fact, one of the most difficult and spiny tasks in human discourse is to ascertain exactly who people are because they do not readily divulge this highly classified type of information in plain English to other people—they are too sophisticated for that. As a matter of fact, in most cases; people would not tell you who they are—and this single item is one of the most significant causes of the conflict, contention, and strife that so often develop among people relating to each other at varying levels of closeness. Somewhere along the line, one or more of the parties lie about themselves and the situations in which they are involved: This often produces strong trust issues; betrayal; and, in many cases, all-out war. Their failure to listen both to what was and was not said is often the root of the trouble that develops later on down the road. Now, what is conspicuously absent from this discussion thus far is a clear understanding of the nature of listening. As it turns out, listening is not merely audible; it is a multifaceted phenomenon, and people who think that listening amounts to just words are in for a rude awakening!

Now, do not get me wrong: The verbal contents of listening alone are quite substantive and quantitative; however, the other elements of listening are needed in order to fully understand the mind-boggling value of real listening. As was stated above, listening is not just audible: A sizable amount of listening involves other elements which are visual, contextual, and detail-driven in nature. Because of the human weakness and tendency to falsify personal information, people’s words are not enough substance on which to build reliable, trustworthy relationships: Visual elements often provide much of the rest of the information that is often needed to build trust in human relationship situations—and many a person who has been misled by folks’ frothy words are no longer here with us. Visual, detail-driven information helps to put things in their proper context and creates currents of order and verifiability; for example, if your boyfriend is telling you how much he loves you; but strange phone numbers with female names are mysteriously showing up on his cell phone and he is inadvertently calling you other women’s names out of the clear blue, what he is saying is contradicted by plain facts staring you in the face. In this regard; visual information, contextual analysis, and detail-driven assessment are more reliable facts than what is merely being said.

In view of what has already been stated, listening in its entirety needs to be the central focus of all human discourse. Some people are anxious and flooded with thoughts which they feel they must express right away: This renders effective listening and engaging in productive conversation quite difficult. When the conversation is very interesting and the excitement is strong, we often feel as if we cannot wait to get our point across; as a result, we cut across people’s word flow, forcing them to hold their thoughts as we stuff them with one last thought from our golden vault of ideas. The reality is that the art of listening needs to be taught in school and developed into a discipline just like English Language and geography and marketing and the many others. Indeed, breaking old, inveterate habits of rambling and rattling off a flood of words are harder to break than most of us would like to think. These crass, old habits must be subjected to scientific analysis and therapy in clinical settings that retrain people how to respect their friends’ and associates’ right to expressing their opinions in conversation with them. These quaint bad habits generally escape our notice because, societally, they are not viewed as wrong or bad; rather, they are simply considered inappropriate, and that is about it. In reality though, poor listening is plainly bad social taste and potentially damaging and destructive in more ways than we have not thought possible.

We need to understand the full nature of listening and learn to use it in all of its manifold forms in order to fully understand what people are saying to us. The more we understand the entirety of the art of listening, the more aware we are going to be when we engage people in conversation, and the more useful and friendly we are going to be to our own selves. In view of the illusive and subterfugeous nature of human society, conversations must be engaged in with the utmost presence of mind and the most exquisitely fine-tuned ears around. We all need faithful and trustworthy friends on whom we can depend. According to the great “Book of Proverbs,” a good friend sticks closer than a brother; but we need to know that the people whom we trust and let into our inner circle are good friends. We need to know exactly who the people who come around us are; and forasmuch as that is both difficult and paramountly important, we must get it right. This information is the most important piece of data needed for the formation of fruitful and productive friendship with people: It is often the one thing that is missing in virtually all human relationships. In this regard, nurturing the exquisite art of listening is often the mysterious code breaker because people are telling us who they are all the time; but in most cases, they do not say it with their mouths: They talk with their bodies and actions. Good listeners understand the context of truth and are versed in analyzing the detail-driven information that good listening often uncovers. Who understands life and how to access its often mazy information from all the clutter out there? Good listeners—they have four ears: Two that listen to that which is said and two forever open to those things which ought to have been said but, for one reason or another, were not.

In sum, society needs to reassess and change its shallow perception of listening; so much value is imbedded in the contents of people’s mouths and so many things can go wrong as a result of one’s failure to hear that which ought to have been heard properly, a more formal approach needs to be taken to correct the sociological blemishes of poor listening. In life, quite often, the things that are viewed as minor and insignificant are the real game changers that make the difference between failure and success, victory and defeat, and life and death. The benefits that accrue to society; as a whole; from good, sharp listening are incalculable. The betrayals that could been thwarted, the imprisonments that could be circumvented, the opportunities that could be caught, and the lives and marriages that could be saved all point to the staggering need for societies that listen much more carefully and attentively. Good listening saves lives, unearths opportunities, and changes society in a most pronounced way. Come on folks: Let us all commit to becoming better conversationists and extraordinary listeners, for good listening changes people in a positive way; and that makes all the difference in the world. Good listeners make superb conversationalists, releasing torrents of great ideas into the world that would make human society a safer and better environment for all of us.




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