- Good listening is having the willingness to enter into another person’s life.
- Empathy requires a willingness to listen, and listening demands wiping the slate of your mind clean.
- The inability to listen has nothing to do with socioeconomic or political circumstances.
Ernest Hemingway put it bluntly: “Most people never listen.”
Given that meaningful relationships are crucial to human thriving, it is unfortunate that the ability to listen should be so underestimated, and so rare.
The importance of listening was apparently a concern in the earliest days of Western philosophy. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BC), the founder of Stoicism, proclaimed, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” A few centuries later, his philosophical descendant Epictetus taught, “Whoever is going to listen to the philosophers needs considerable practice in listening.”
But listening has gotten short shrift in philosophy over the years. While attempts to break down moral character into a list of virtues — like courage, honesty, self-control and so on — go back at least to Aristotle, the ability to listen never made the list. Philosophy is mostly silent on the moral importance of being a good listener.
Good listening is not a matter of technique but of having the willingness to enter into another person’s life. Many bad listeners can’t be there for someone else because they are too locked into themselves. For them, everything has to be filtered through their own experience and concerns.
There are hordes of people who have never had anyone to listen to them. Sometimes the isolation is the debris of external conditions: poverty, family illness, unemployment, war.
Psychoanalysts train for years to master the art of listening carefully. Most importantly, they labour at learning to decipher their “countertransference”, that is, at detecting experiences and desires that might filter and so distort the revelations of their clients. For example, an analyst who understands that she harbours red-hot anger toward her father would need to be careful of unconsciously and mistakenly hearing resonances of her dad in words coming from the person on the couch.
“How do you listen?” the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti asked his audience in a 1953 talk. “Do you listen with your projections, through your projection, through your ambitions, desires, fears, anxieties, through hearing only what you want to hear, only what will be satisfactory, what will gratify, what will give comfort, what will for the moment alleviate your suffering? If you listen through the screen of your desires, then you obviously listen to your own voice; you are listening to your own desires.” Which is of course to say, you aren’t listening at all.
When my philosophy students put together their own table of virtues, they invariably include empathy. But empathy requires a willingness to listen, and listening demands wiping the slate of your mind clean. Tell someone you are battling through a marital break-up and in a few ticks most folks will quickly relate it to themselves, perhaps saying, “I went through the same thing a few years back.”
The comfort of feeling one's not alone
Raw-edged awkwardness, the feeling of not knowing what to say, is one of the most daunting impediments to being present for someone else — but that very feeling is the result of mistakenly thinking that the person reaching out to you is asking for something akin to an explanation. Once, a teenage neighbour confided to me that her best friend had recently hanged himself. Weeping she said, “Maybe this sounds selfish, but I feel like he was the only person who ever really listened to me, who ever understood me.”
In those few moments together, this distraught 18-year-old was not expecting me to explain the place of her friend’s untimely death in the grand scheme of the universe. She just wanted me to be there with her in her howling pain. She was yearning for the comfort of feeling that she was not alone, that at least someone grasped what she was feeling.
But I’m not just trying to describe the virtue of being a good listener. I also want to suggest that people who have not been listened to often find it hard to listen to themselves.
A few years ago, I had a student come to me in dire academic straits. This was a shock since this 20-year old had always been a brilliant and impassioned learner. I knew his family background: a single mother working two low wage jobs to support him and his siblings. For all his mum’s grit and loving resolve to nurture her children, growing up there was not much space for him to complain to his exhausted mum about slurs in school or being cut from the soccer team.
As he was perched on a chair in my office, slumped shoulders and head hanging low, I kept trying different tacks to get a sense of what was going on behind his furrowed brows. He couldn’t cough it up. He was a mystery to himself. A week before our conversation, he made the leap of talking with a counsellor. In those sessions, he had heard some clinical terms tossed about, and during our meeting he obsessively circled around the question of whether or not he was suffering from anxiety or depression. “It is not an either/or; anxiety and depression are common partners,” I assured him, insisting that what we needed to do was concentrate on how he was feeling now and more urgently, on getting him to pull out of his academic crash pattern.
Debris of external conditions
Ironically enough, this student is a highly valued volunteer mentor and tutor in the local state schools. There is no doubt that he can take heed of the travails of struggling kids, but when it came to listening to himself, he had a hearing problem. He could not make sense of his inner world. I could not help but think that his inner confusion owed much to the absence in his life of caring and attentive listeners.
There are hordes of people who have never had anyone to listen to them. Sometimes the isolation is the debris of external conditions: poverty, family illness, unemployment, war. Still, just as often, the inability to listen has nothing to do with socioeconomic or political circumstances.
Many young people keep troubling thoughts inside because their parents iced up when their Jack or Jill vented feelings that made mum and dad feel helpless or guilty. Friends have confided to me that as youngsters they couldn’t go to their parents when they were on the razor’s edge because they felt their folks were too fragile and would just fall apart or withdraw. I suppose it is straightforward, but my hypothesis is that people forced to muffle their feelings and thoughts are in peril of burying those inner perturbations so deeply that they can’t unearth them anymore.
At the risk of breaking my own rule about not relating everything to oneself, I was a borderline criminal adolescent. But I benefited and was perhaps even saved by a brace of quiet blessings — a level of basic trust and a cadre of kindhearted people who would listen to me as I spilled my roiling heart and mind. These generous individuals who could put themselves aside enough to listen to a daft teenager would also give me feedback. Because they listened to me, I learnt to listen to myself. By effectively holding my hand, they helped me develop into a bird watcher of my inner life and so gain some much needed sway over my moods and emotions.
In ancient Athens, the sacred words “Know thyself” were inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi. Knowing yourself is a hard, perpetual labour. But it is one made infinitely more challenging for those living among people with the ears to hear, but not to listen.
— Gordon Marino is a philosopher. He is the director of Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, US.