The Simple Art of Listening
© 9 June 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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In defense of a dying art form.


In my early teenage years I decided to learn to listen. This decision was motivated by my brother pointing out that in the half-hour argument I had just abandoned as hopeless my opponent and I had both been arguing the same point in different words. I was stunned. And so I determined to learn how to listen. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later when I took up programming that I realized I also needed to learn to hear.

One of the things you learn in computer programming is that there is a qualitative difference between what is said and what is meant. Many computer bugs are caused by meaning to tell the computer to do one thing but actually telling it to do something else by mistake. To detect these bugs, particularly when helping other people, I had to start hearing what was said as well as what was meant.

Listening is an art. Like any art, it requires technical competence as well as intuitive skill, can cheer an audience as well as communicate subtle messages, and it is poorly remunerated.

From a technical standpoint, listening requires taking an utterance with a myriad of possibly-intended syntactic, semantic, and emotive messages, selecting from those a manageable subset of probably-significant cues, and using those to refine an existing model of what the speaker means. Equally important are skills used in providing feedback to the speaker: facial expressions, body language, eye motion, and the audible cues of murmurs and sighs, laughter and questions.

The biggest intuitive skill in listening is a feeling for the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. I have a friend for who I can rarely intuit if he is seeking sympathy, laughter, advise, or laud. I have others who I understand well enough that I can often formulate the best reaction before they even speak. Reacting before they speak is almost never the best reaction. Even for those painfully-slow-about-it speakers we all love to interrupt.

But the real artistry in listening is using it to communicate. We can all tell when our friends are stressed and frazzled and need to vent; the art lies in not only express friendship by listening to the tirade but actually reducing the stress—without offering any kind of advice. Another expression of that art, albeit less desirable, is found in those people who can make you feel stupid or pointless just by giving the wrong facial expressions as you speak to them.

Listening is an art. I wish we all may be better at it.

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