In Search of Lost Listening

What does listening imply?

The ability of virtually anyone to meet their needs employing technology has raised the following issue: everyone who wants to express themselves has to face increasing competition for an increasingly unavailable resource: the limited attention of the interlocutor.

One of the main functions of listening is validation. This issue is very important in organizational communication, but it has its roots in society, so I will deal with it treat it from this perspective, with several examples.

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Validation means receiving an authentic confirmation from the interlocutor that the transmitted message has been received. Validation does not necessarily imply the agreement with the interlocutor. An authentic agreement is a rare precious jewel.

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Goodwill in communication is too often taken as an implied good, which implies both the ability of the interlocutor to actively listen and validate the received messages, as well as the fact that the interlocutor considers that the received message is worthy of their serious attention. The presumption that I am including in this article may be a rather impolite one apparently, but in fact, it seems very functional to me: goodwill in communication is worth being rewarded and earned, not considered to be implied.

First, I am focusing on the skill component, then on the will component.


Questions to be asked before WANTING to listen

The expectation of someone who issues a message is to be listened to, to influence, and be eventually clarified. The mere fact of expression may be extremely powerful in itself, even though the interlocutor is inanimate. When validation is expected, desired, preferred by the transmitter, the validation responsibility cannot only be placed in the listener’s hand. “You don’t listen to me” is often a reproach either to the listener’s will, or skills. However, how many times do we check, as transmitters, the following assumptions about a potential listener of our expression?

  • Does the listener have the required mood, availability, patience to listen to the message in this context and in this form? Too many communications fail because the mere presence or interest in the presence of the interlocutor may be confused with their willingness to listen. Maybe the interlocutor has something else to do or wants to express himself. It must be checked, right?
  • Does the listener deserve to receive the emotion of our message? If it is a positive emotion, is he likely to respond positively? If it is a negative emotion, are we prepared for him to be replied to negatively?
  • Have we communicated to the interlocutor, before sending the message, if the purpose of listening is the simple expression, or obtaining the agreement, or obtaining a solution? These competing goals may often confuse the listener regarding what is expected of him.
  • Are we prepared to deal with the disagreement of the listener, in any situation?
  • Can we observe the listener’s feedback?
  • Do we give the listener the time to answer?
  • Are we prepared to win and reward the goodwill of the listener?


How are we supposed to know how to listen to?

Children learn the Romanian language and literature in school, but until the end of high school, they don’t learn interpersonal communication. Communication and public relations students learn how to send messages, but there is no subject matter called “how to receive/listen”. In fact, this is possibly an obscure subitem from commercial communication: monitoring the competition.

However, listening is a skill supposed by the majority. On what grounds? Where should listening be learned?

Listening could be learned in the family or in Church if there was a strategic education aimed at inspiring this virtue. However, when some priests and most parents are too hasty to listen, they give an insufficient example. The natural conclusion of too many children and future adults, employed in organizations, is something like: “Expression is always something to be practiced in competition.” However, the absolute hallucinatory and competing premise is that, if an emitter opens their mouth and starts talking in the presence of another, they will automatically be listened to and possibly confirmed as well. Why? Because otherwise, it is rude and they will be excluded from the circle of love and conditional acceptance, possibly condemned to sit on walnut shells in the corner of shame.

However, the term ascultare (listening) used in the meaning of “examination” has a negative connotation in the Romanian society: students are “examined”, i.e. subject to pressure (without which no effort is worth being turned to account), the Communist Security used to tap (“listen to”) phones, neighbors eavesdrop on what we are talking beyond the walls, so we should, therefore, whisper, in order not to disturb an invisible presence. However, there is not enough protest for our privacy rights.

As a result of absent listening, the transmitter feels the need to repeat the message (maybe it was not sufficiently understood). Even if the interlocutor seems to have received the message, if he does not verbally or non-verbally confirm its reception, the transmitter may continue to tell the same story again and again, which can lead to exasperation. The loop is repeated indefinitely. Why? Because there is no validation. The message sent using validation should sound approximately like this, not necessarily using words: “I have received your message. I understand that’s your concern. From your perspective, this is an idea whose existence I recognize. You are allowed to exist in my presence and to express yourself, I recognize you.” This message is worth repeating if the transmitter is still looking for validation.

When we first contact an unknown person for the first time, we don’t necessarily expect to receive the goodwill of an answer on their part. Why would we expect that every time we contact someone familiar, that person should have the availability to make the effort to listen to us? Authentic listening is a very precious resource and an effort for which people deserve to be rewarded. Remember that the next time you hear the fee of a psychologist, psychotherapist, coach, doctor, or consultant. You pay someone to listen to you without you having much interest in their concerns. Maybe that’s why psychologists’ time is being abused outside of the private sessions: that is, a professional invests years and tens of thousands of Euros in their training to offer them for free to anyone who happens to think they are entitled to? I beg your pardon?

So, the next time you leave work after a day of discussions in which you have the feeling that you have talked to the walls, or after a chat with your friends you feel alone, it’s a good idea to ask yourself how much of the time competition in expression has been manifested and how much of the time has listening been truly manifested.


The implicit messages behind the desire to listen

Here are just a few examples that demonstrate a pathology of daily lack of listening. I don’t consider these examples representative for the respective roles but are, in my opinion, only an unwanted exception that can easily be corrected through awareness and alternative behaviors.

The parent is calling the child from another room: “Can you hear me when I’m talking to you?” The parent just indirectly sent the child the following message: “I don’t know what you are doing and I’m not interested. Actually, I don’t even care. You’re at my command, so you have to be available anytime I want. Leave everything you are doing and stay still to hear my commands. Communication is a means of imposition, not dialogue. “

The priest who says: “Dear Christians, don’t come to the confession with lists, because we don’t have time to listen to you, we have a Church to build” actually conveys the idea that “I am not at your disposal, but I am doing you a free limited service. My ears are not open with the patience of a confessor for what you have to say. I am looking at my watch and do other things while listening to you. PS: Give money for building the Church, because I’m actually more of a real estate entrepreneur, not a confidant. “

The manager who knocks his assistant to her fits and all those with whom he is in the meeting by exchanging a lot of ideas proves to be indecisive and abuses the trust and attention of his subordinates who are remunerated financially and not rewarded psychologically, especially when they have to execute contradictory orders.

The guest on a TV show who is forced to interrupt the moderator with the question “Forgive me, will you please allow me to answer the question you asked me?” actually conveys the following message: “I manifest understanding of your lack of communication skill, you redneck! In fact, you didn’t invite me to listen to me, but to express yourself. Hello, I am still here, if you invited me, will you let me talk or you forgot about me and you prefer to speak all by yourself?”

Two people who talk about vacation:

A: “I liked it in Greece. It was so …”

B: “No, I liked it in the Netherlands.”

I beg your pardon? B actually conveys the following idea to A: You are only allowed to express yourself if you express ideas to which I agree, and you must know what I agree to or not before you or I open our mouths. If you express an idea to which I disagree, then I have the feeling that I have to agree to it and then I feel compelled to stop you before you hallucinate that I am going to continue to listen to a point of view so radically different from mine. Be like me, if you want to talk to me, think like me, prefer like me because you are listened to conditionally to confirm ME. Otherwise, I won’t play anymore.”


So what if I CAN listen to you if I don’t WANT to?

Sometimes, the skill is not enough, there must also be motivation and will. So, the agreement, even if manifested, is sometimes superficially manifested, because the implicit assumption is that somebody will not hear out somebody that they don’t agree to. Some people confuse validation with consent. In fact, what is it worth doing or saying to prove that you are right? Sometimes, it is not enough to be right, it also depends on how you prove it.

Finally, the listening skills are also checked by the strength of the changes in the state that they can cause in the person being listened to. For example, it’s easy to have a sense of humor with anyone when they are in a good mood and like to laugh, but try to make a depressed person laugh without listening to them!

On the other hand, those who have these listening skills and demonstrate them, but don’t want to use them with anyone, anywhere, anytime, are harshly judged as inflexible, rigid, “rara avis” and they should give explanations on what they do when they are not available. Why? After all, this is a right that everyone takes without permission, without apologies, without explanations. The girl having dinner with her boyfriend while checking her Facebook account on her phone because she’s bored takes this right, the viewer that changes the channel, anybody receiving uninteresting mail, the politician who doesn’t answer questions, the child who listens to music in his earphones the morning to the detriment of his mother. We have so many ways to meet our own needs at hand that we don’t consider it necessary to apologize for meeting them while being with other people (who cares about privacy anymore when one can just stop listening?).

Are we prepared to face the listening competition? It looks quite sharp, for those who prick their ears!


Marcus Victor Grant

Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant 2017-present Translation by Cristiana Brezeanu of the article “În căutarea ascultării pierdute“  published initially by Marcus Victor Grant in Romanian on the 8th of July 2017 on Discerne. Copyright © Marcus Victor Grant, all rights reserved. 

The materials on this blog are subject to this disclaimer.

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