Ears Wide Open

Sometimes, all I can hear out in the world is a lot of shouting: there’s so much noisy conflict that I struggle to make sense of what’s going on. What’s it all about? Well, there will always be differences of opinion, but shouting is not the best way to win your argument; it merely riles those whom you’re trying to win over and is more than likely to provoke them to shout back at you. Before you know it, you’re engaged in a slanging match, where nuanced points of view are reduced to mere slogans and everyone is expected to take sides – right and wrong, us and them – without considering the possibility of compromise, let alone compassion.

In these situations, the more you shout, the less you are heard – I mean really heard, as in understood. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we concentrated on listening instead? Because if we don’t listen, we will never understand, never live with differences, never come to agreements, never have peace and never act together to save our planet. It sounds simple, so what’s the problem?

Well, for a start, most of us think we are good listeners, but if we stop and think about it, we might see that we have work to do. What’s actually happening when you listen to someone else? Are you really just waiting for them to stop talking so that you can take your turn? If that’s the case, then you’re not properly listening to what they are trying to express. Listen and you might find, as the late Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen believed, that "we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us."

The Japanese encourage the art of listening as a way to cherish each unique encounter; they have a saying, “one time, one meeting”. And in Africa, the Ubuntu say, “I am because we are”, to illustrate the belief that individual and community are interdependent and everyone should hear each other’s stories, struggles and dreams.

These are examples of what I choose to call ‘radical’ listening (though it’s obviously not considered radical by Japanese and Ubuntu standards) and here are some tips on how we might get there.

-         Breathe and remain calm.

-         Keep an open mind – be non-judgemental.

-         Be curious – want to know more.

-         Listen in silence – (you can acknowledge you are listening by smiling and nodding).

-         Listen with all your senses – gauge how you feel, note what you see.

-         Show willingness to learn and explore other ideas and views.

-         Be prepared to change your mind – adapt or pivot, if you are swayed.

-         Take your time – don’t rush or hurry the speaker.

-         Express empathy – say something like, “thank you for sharing”.

-         Agree to disagree – but look for common ground at all times.

-         Be kind – don’t dismiss genuine feelings or concerns.

‘Radical listening’ is a label I use to that remind me to engage my capacities of thought and empathy whenever I hear other people’s stories. It’s one way to make the shouting stop so that the real dialogue can begin.