Thursday, January 26, 2012

Listen and Hear

The concept of listening has been on my mind lately (or I should say, more than usual for a professional musician). It has become my unofficial New Year’s resolution to listen more. I am not referring to listening to music for entertainment, though that activity actually provides a useful illustration for my first point.

Most of us have the ability to hear, but do we listen? Also, most of us have the ability to listen, but do we hear? Listening, in my opinion, is about attending to someone or something’s audible output, and hearing is about perceiving a meaning.

So when I say that I want to listen more, I mean that I want to both listen and hear more. I want to pay attention when someone is speaking to me (rather than working out what I want to say next), and I want to understand what that person is saying (rather than assuming I know what that person really means).

Can you imagine what the world would be like if people took more time to listen and hear the other person in all of their relationships? How many teenagers would be achieving in school rather than suffering in angst-ridden relationships, how many roommates would not be in conflict, how many colleagues would not loathe their jobs, how many marriages would be flourishing – and how many churches would be boldly proclaiming the gospel rather than bickering over traditions, how many governments would move beyond debating over taxes to actually caring for their citizens, and how many countries would not be at war?

Forgive my idealism. I recognize that in many combinations of persons and organizations, ideological differences prevent true relational harmony. Organizations in particular, such as advocacy groups, nations, and political parties, which transcend the lifetimes of people and are more firmly tied to ideologies than individual people, are often unable to resolve their differences. Person-to-person relationships, on the other hand, would find a commitment to listening and hearing quite beneficial. In fact, since at the most basic level and by definition, organizations are comprised of individual people, improving interpersonal relationships at the person-to-person level might (eventually) have a positive effect on the relationships between organizations at all levels.

To put all of the above another way, when we really attend to and try to understand the other person’s point, we learn more about that person. What could be more beneficial to a relationship than knowing the other person better? And the learning is not limited to knowledge of the other person. That other person has experiences that we do not, and so by listening and hearing we can learn more about the world as a whole. I came across this quotation in the current issue of Reader’s Digest:

“A lot of us are so eager to be heard, we forget to listen to the other guy. But when you shut up and pay attention to people, it keeps you engaged, and you learn all kinds of things. On the other hand, you never learn anything while talking.”

James Garner, “The Key to Life is Listening.” Reader’s Digest, February 2012, p. 149.

Physiologically, it takes almost no effort to listen. Unlike our eyes, which have lids, the ears have no natural option for covering, and so the ears pick up any sound within range. But it takes effort to attend to that sound. Hearing, or perceiving meaning, requires effort to some extent but also experience. A person from the eighteenth century would perceive no meaning upon hearing, for example, the start-up sounds of a computer. If I heard someone speaking in Japanese, I would of course recognize it as speech, and may be able to perceive the speaker’s emotional state, but would be able to perceive little more.

And so it takes experience to be able to hear, that is, to perceive meaning. And this experience comes only by listening, that is, by attending to the sounds around us.

What sounds are around us right now? What sounds have we not listened to lately, and as a result not heard the meaning that someone else – perhaps even God – might have for us?

This is Rubio, over and out.