The Heart of Listening

I'm a terrible listener. That's not a confession; it's what my 4-year-old daughter told me last January.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) “Well, you’re in luck,” I said. “Mommy is starting a listening class tonight.”

“What’s a listening class?” she asked. The truth is, I really had no idea. The idea of taking a course in something I’ve done my entire life seemed both obtuse and oddly ironic.

According to Professor of Communication Rick Bommelje, more than 1,500 people have taken his Listening course since it was first offered in 1992. The 15-week course is a requirement for communication studies majors and a popular elective for nonmajors. But each semester when Bommelje asks how many students have taken a listening class before, the result is always the same: zero.

“As the father of the field of listening, Ralph Nichols, said years ago, ‘Our education system is upside down.’ The thing we do the most of, we have the least amount of formal education in,” Bommelje says. “The curriculum in most elementary and secondary schools is established through state mandated initiatives and, unfortunately, listening is not considered to be a basic skill.”

Come again. NOT a basic skill?

In a 2011 TED Talk, Julian Treasure, author of the book Sound Business, shared that we spend about 60 percent of our communication time listening. “But we’re not very good at it. We retain just 25 percent of what we hear,” he said. Treasure suggested that, thanks to the ability to record, we are losing our ability to listen. “The premium on accurate and careful listening has simply disappeared. We don’t want oratory anymore; we want sound bites.”

Treasure thinks that’s a serious problem.

“This is not trivial because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding. A world where we don’t listen to each other at all is a very scary place indeed.

Bommelje agrees. “Where there is no awareness, there is no growth. If people are not able to learn solid foundations of listening, repeated errors can be made,” he says. “The costs can be measured in
many ways, including loss of relationships, of trust, of credibility, of money—even loss of life.”

So, let’s all get on the same page: Learning to listen effectively is important. The why is clear; the how is not.

On the first day of class, I arrived early to watch a mix of students shuffle in looking both curious and puzzled. Through discussion and a quick listening test, the realization set in that none of us is a very good listener. I immediately felt hit in the gut with a mix of regret and shame.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) I wish I could tell you that what followed was a lesson similar to learning how to count cards in Vegas. My Type A brain had naively hoped to be taught a series of techniques designed to help me remember people’s names and stay more focused when my mother chatters away on the phone. But it turns out that there is much more of an art to listening than there is a science. Sure, it’s a skill, but it has more to do with intention than ability.

In our fourth week, Bommelje shared a quote by David Augsburger that I’ll never forget: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.” I immediately thought of my two daughters and realized that I had allowed their bouncy chatter and constant requests to become a dull murmur, like a radio buzzing quietly in the background. No wonder they thought I was a terrible listener. And while I had demonstrated my love in so many ways since they were born, I’d neglected to offer the most loving gesture of all: my listening.

The day after this jarring epiphany, I donned a purple plastic bracelet on my wrist and showed it to my girls. “What’s that for?” my eldest asked.

“It’s my listening bracelet, and I’m wearing it to remind myself to be a better listener,” I told her. “But I need your help too. Can you remind me to be a better listener if you sense I’m not listening to you?” I asked. They both enthusiastically agreed.

Over the course of the next two months, I wish I could say I became a world-class listener, but the reality is that Bommelje’s course did more to highlight my deficiencies than rectify them. That’s not a fault of the course; it’s just a reality of our humanness. Unlike riding a bike or learning to whistle, listening isn’t a skill you learn once and then master; it takes years of careful intention to undo decades of the narcissistic wiring that causes us to blab rather than hear.

For me, Listening was more than a class; it was a signpost that marked when I went from being a person who never considered the quality of her listening to a person who feels a little pang of penitence ever y time she misses the chance to truly hear another person, to love someone with her full attention. It was the beginning of a journey, not the completion of a course.