The Dying Art of Listening

Reprinted with permission from The Odyssey Online

listeningPhoto courtesy Deviant Art

People will say anything because they feel like nobody’s listening. And few people are.

There are all sorts of art forms. Music, writing, and painting of course, but also sand sculpture, graffiti, stand up comedy, and listening.

I am talking about proper listening, here. There is a world of difference between hearing someone talk and listening to them. Proper listening involves paying attention and making an effort to remember details. Hearing means letting someone’s words sort of wash over you, perhaps catching the highlights but otherwise tuned out. I am a listener.

Listening has been part of me for as long as I can remember. My own mother nicknamed me “Dear Abby” when I was barely a teenager because it was so common for people to tell me their life story. I have gotten better at listening over the years, learning how to phrase questions so that people keep talking, or let someone know I am going to move on. To really be good at listening, practice is involved. But mostly, I just let people talk. The moment they realize I am actually listening, they get the bit in their teeth and there is no stopping them.

I have had strangers tell me about their extramarital affairs. Strangers have told me about their abusive spouses, drug-addicted kids, and details of their various ailments. I have been told sordid details of siblings squabbling over their deceased parents’ estate. People have told me why they got charged as a sex offender. If you listen long enough and attentively enough, people will tell you everything on their heart. Sometimes you don’t even have to wait very long. I used to think it would stop surprising me, but it never has.

Listening is natural for me because my brain likes infodumps. I want to know stuff. And more stuff. And yet even more stuff. Tell me your birthday or your dog’s name, and the chances are quite good that I will remember it, especially if we meet again within a few days. If I see you more than two or three times, I will remember your face even if I don’t see it again for a decade. Information is never a bad thing, in my opinion. And you never know when the smallest detail can come in handy. Wars and great loves have been won and lost in the details.

I have never liked not knowing things. I want to know about the people around me; the people I work with, customers I see often, known members of the community, these are all people that need to be listened to and remembered. Not much greases a wheel better than remembering what someone has told you. People like that. And I’m good at it.

The funny thing is, I realize this is also a form of control. Maybe one of the worst forms, to be honest. My mind does not relax much. It is constantly processing, reviewing, reordering, making connections, and correlating. I doubt this is uncommon; a lot of people seem to complain of not being able to switch off their brain at night. My brain is like that, except all the time. Imagine playing a never-ending game of “Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon” with yourself, in which you constantly chatter at yourself to reach new understandings or formulate more questions. Somewhere down under all that crazy, I truly think that storing a bunch of useless, detailed information will help me keep on top of any situation. It’s my way of having some control over my surroundings.

It does come in handy, I admit. Training of most kinds is usually smooth for me, as I am already practiced at listening and remembering what I’m told. Trainers and employers tend to like that. Prospective clients are much more likely to become actual clients when you remember that their kid plays soccer on a winning team, or ask how their vacation went.

But listening is becoming a dying art. Not many people are listening any more, and I think we can all agree that the fact is obvious. But it’s obvious at even a more personal level. I talk to a lot of people, and let me tell you something: they are lonely. They talk to me because I know how to listen, and clearly this is a need most people are not getting met many other places. People will talk an ear off, and tend to repeat themselves if allowed to go on long enough. I am convinced they do this because they are so accustomed to nobody listening, that they automatically go on auto-repeat. It can be maddening at times, but it’s also a good way to catch incongruities in their stories.

In my opinion, listening is a crucial skill. It is the best and surest way to learn things. As a writer, listening is invaluable to me. Catchy turns of phrase, different points of view, unique names, and interesting characters are only a few things that can be gleaned from effective listening. I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people through no other method than simply listening when they spoke. But I think that figuring out that every single person you meet has a singular perspective on everything, is the greatest gift you can receive from listening.

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