An indisputably good and timely skill to have, yet so few of us do

10.06.2020 | Phoebe McDowell

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Now more than ever it’s important to listen. To the scientists trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, and to BAME communities who’ve been disproportionately affected by the virus. To narratives new and old from the Black Lives Matter movement. And to our flatmates or families around dinner tables and on Zoom calls.

We know that being a good listener is a necessary, almost virtuous quality. It’s perhaps why so few of us are able to admit that we’re not good at it, despite frequent admissions of being a useless cook or terrible singer. “Because we ‘listen’ everyday, we don’t know we’re bad at it” says former hostage negotiator Richard Mullender, who now runs courses for the corporate world via The Listening Institute.


Perhaps if listening was held in higher regard, we’d work on it more? Rousing speeches from world leaders, teenage climate activists, and Silicon Valley execs make up the majority of inspirational people. TEDTalks are often the marker of eminent careers. Talking is assertive and urgent. Eloquence is intelligent and sexy. There are tonnes of notable examples of good orators, yet the roster of good listeners pales in comparison (if such a thing even exists). Far from the audio spectacle of talking, listening is, by proxy, more passive, less noticeable.

"up to 55% of listening is nonverbal, derived from gestures and sounds"

It’s hard to assimilate the supposed silence of listening in the cacophonous world in which we live. Politicians pantomime the act, but the soundtrack to the House of Commons is one of heckling and jeering. Even between friends there are all-too-familiar debates in which no-one listens. Online, the infinite scroll of opinions and accompanying mic drop put-downs are deafening. Alain de Botton, philosopher and objective sense speaker, reiterates how rare the quality is: “An unusual degree of confidence is the key — a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions”. It’s what Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, calls “negative capability.” Yes, our propensity to bite back when we hear something we don’t like should be replaced by a conviction to shush. By listening to someone’s words and the subtext of them in these circumstances, we’ll better be able to understand why they think the way they do.

Murphy estimates that up to 55% of listening is nonverbal, derived from gestures and sounds - like sighs and silence - which again, suggests that the first thing to do, is to be quiet. “You might think that questions make you seem engaged, understanding and on their level, but you’re actually hindering the natural course of the conversation. Silence signals to the talker to keep doing just that, because when they do, the more information, emotion and secrets they share, because their subconscious is running faster than their mind” says Mullender. “Eliciting the information is one thing, but you still need to be able to access their mindset and interpret it correctly,” he continues.

"our addiction to distraction, has led to“psychology and sociology researchers [to begin] warning of an epidemic of loneliness”

Be mindful that technology is a factor in our incompetence. Social media for example, simultaneously aids and thwarts our listening skills - the latter because phones usurp attention that would traditionally be spent conversating. “Like smokers and cigarettes, people get jittery without their phones,” Murphy writes. And so, our addiction to distraction, has led to“psychology and sociology researchers [to begin] warning of an epidemic of loneliness”.

Don’t despair yet though. Despite the fact that Mullender secured the release of two UN workers held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2004, and has saved approximately 50 people from suicide during his career, he’s adamant that with practice, you and I could become just as good a listener as he. Murphy agrees that fruitful listening is taught: “[they’re] not born that way, they become that way." And so, there’s hope still, which is just as well, because there’s a lot that needs listening to right now.