The lost art of listening

It is a commonplace saying that we must listen more. But in our noisy world it takes a lot of skill and energy.

There isn’t a single balm which will soothe the many malaises of modern life: the loneliness and lack of belonging, the social polarisation and screechy public discourse. But there is one balm which comes very close. There is something everyone can do that offers profound connections and bonds because people suddenly feel understood and included. It humbly crosses the no-man’s land of the culture wars and, done wisely, can even separate sincere idealists from showboating blowhards: listening.

As my family would tell you, I’m slightly obsessed with the art of listening. It’s an indispensable skill both in my job as a journalist, and in my vocation as a community- and peace-builder. I so aspire to be a listener that I even put it on my CV and blogs and when someone says to me ‘you’re a good listener’ I take it as the very highest compliment. It is, by a long way, the trait I most admire in other people.

But it’s very much a dying art. In Italy, where I live, social discourse is largely made up of mansplaining monologues and machete-like interruptions. TV is dominated by ‘talk shows’ which would be better called ‘shout shows’. But it’s similar everywhere really: conversations often seem like one-upmanship games, the point-scoring underpinned by pathological insecurity and egotism. Social media exacerbates the habit, allowing us to be always brilliantly self-presentational.

The problem arises because the vital prerequisites for good listening are equally scarce. It demands a quietening, even a temporary switching off, of your own interior voice. All bias and prejudice must be put away. You have to be cool with long silences and a lack of speed or direction. Listening needs stillness, humility and asceticism. Even curiosity, that other necessity, seems thin on the ground. Last weekend, I bumped into an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen for 20 years: for an hour he transmitted a series of self-aggrandising stories and didn’t ask a single question.

There is, you can probably infer, some of my own personal stuff going on here. One of the great regrets of my life is that the immense musical talents given to my parents, brothers, nephews and children passed me by. Of all the things in the world, I wish I were a musician. So perhaps my love of listening – both the gifting and receiving of it – is my way of trying to show that I too have a good ear. I don’t though: I’m a bit hard of hearing, and living in Italy, am invariably listening in a language not my own. But perhaps that helps in an odd way: I’m often straining, genuinely inclining my head because I want to hear and I want to understand. As the late Robin Daniels used to say, my ear is my instrument.

I’ve often wondered, too, how much my job as a writer comes into it. Plenty of writers are pontificators in public, but most, if they’re any good, are also exceptional listeners, catching the cadences of speech and trying to trace the dots of meaning and desire hidden behind it. And because writing tends to be solitary and still, almost a meditative, receptive state, many writers are centred and sensitive to the noises they hear. And perhaps those who have the vast privilege of publishing what they write have less need to be heard in a social (or even social media) setting.

Whatever the reason, I’m a listener, albeit a very imperfect one. And I’ve noticed many things. It always surprises me how exhausting it is. Far from being passive, listening is very active: it requires an unusual combination of acute concentration and super-sensitivity. You need to listen not just to what’s being said, but to why it’s being said. And you need to attune yourself to all the subtext, to what’s not being said. All the while, it requires a taming of your own tongue, so that you never interrupt or offer solutions.

When you get it right, it’s akin to waiting on someone in the most total, disinterested and solicitous way. And miraculous things happen. When I’m being truly listened to, it’s nothing like a mechanical unloading of what I already knew. It’s as if I’m making a discovery, as if someone has generously given me the tools, time and the space to order, structure and verbalise something I wasn’t aware of. Quite often, there’s an epiphany or ‘Kairos moment’. Which is why the first thing I usually do when writing a long, complicated essay is pick up the phone and call one of my listening friends.

The bond created by this waiting on each other is so profound that ideological positions can come to seem less distant. Real listening is akin to conversational aikido, and very often when someone discovers they are not being attacked or resisted, their centre of gravity will shift. Rigid stances invariably soften and we find common ground. We might not end up agreeing, but the bond created by deep listening makes the divide seem superficial.

In the last year the near-ubiquitous uptake of video-calling services has, I think, altered the quality of our conversations. Various technologies (mobiles and headphones in particular) have often, and rightly, been blamed for a decline in lending an ear to others.

But with Zoom, we can see ourselves onscreen and so actually witness how we, and others, listen. It has become common practise that everyone mutes themselves when one person is talking – which is exactly what we used to do in our community during wellbeing meetings. There is only one voice and, given the line delays and lags of international video conferences, there can’t be a free-for-all, with people jumping in. We’re forced to be hesitant, even invited, before speaking. It makes me hope that there might at least be one upside to this dispiriting pandemic: a rediscovery of my favourite art.


Tobias Jones