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The courage to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The courage to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The courage to listen
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
19 June 2019

The courage to listen

Listening—really listening—is one of the most generous and courageous acts we can perform for another

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

If you accept, as I do, that the deepest of all human desires is the desire to be taken seriously—to be noticed, acknowledged, appreciated, accepted—then it follows that the greatest gift we can give another person is the gift of listening attentively to them when they have something they want to say to us.

Nothing says “I take you seriously” like attentive listening. Nothing says “I don’t take you seriously” like inattentive, half-hearted or “mock” listening: glancing at your watch, looking over the person’s shoulder in the hope of sighting someone more interesting to talk to, or—the worst offence—using the time they’re speaking to work out what you’re going to say next.

Who would ever want to convey the explicit message to a partner, child, friend, colleague or, indeed, a needy stranger on the bus, that “I don’t take you seriously enough to bother listening attentively to you”?

Yet we do it all the time. Our reluctance to listen carefully, attentively, generously is legendary, and there are many physical and psychological reasons why. One is the fact that, while most people speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute, most of us think (when we’re thinking verbally) at a rate of about 500 words per minute. This means that, when someone is speaking to us, there’s a lot of excess mental capacity available to be filled by distracting thoughts!

Another reason is that it is physically harder work to listen—to really concentrate on what is being said—than it is to talk, which is why most of us prefer talking to listening.

But the main reason why we seem so reluctant to listen is that really listening to someone is not only one of the most generous acts we can perform for another person; it’s also one of the most courageous.

Why courageous? Simply because listening involves seriously entertaining another person’s ideas; putting yourself in their shoes; seeing the world from their point of view. Listening involves putting your own ideas on hold; suspending your own prejudices and preconceptions; stepping outside the comfort and security of your own personal cocoon of attitudes and values.

And that’s a risky process. It implies that you are prepared to take the risk of being changed by what you hear, and that’s where courage comes in. As the eminent US psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, put it in On Becoming a Person:

If you really understand another person … if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes … the risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.

Why frightening? The answer lies in the self-protective framework of attitudes and beliefs we have spent a lifetime constructing: our personal fortress! It’s a bit like a psychological “cage,” though it feels like the opposite of a prison. From inside the cage, we feel protected by our own certainties. From inside the cage, we see the world through the filter of our own prejudices and preconceptions (so it’s no wonder we tend to have our prejudices reinforced by what we see).

Attentive, serious listening involves us in stepping outside the comfort and security of our own cage and entering into the other person’s cage so we see the world the way they see it. We might then decide we don’t like the view from their cage; we might then decide we disagree with them. But until we have seriously entertained their ideas, we’re not qualified to judge. (“Receive before you react” is one of the cardinal rules of listening.)

It’s all about risk-taking. Given that the risk of having to change our minds represents such a threat to our psychological equanimity, attentive listening needs all the courage we can muster.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.

hughmackay.net.au

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