Some Thoughts on Listening

By Chris Chittenden

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

… Ernest Hemingway (1889-1961) US journalist, novelist and short-story writer

It has been many years since I touched on the topic of listening, so I felt it was high time to reconnect with one of the key aspects of communicating with others and offer some further ideas on the subject.

Let us begin with a simple question, "What do we do when we listen to another person or even ourselves?"

An initial distinction to draw here, involves an understanding of the difference between hearing and listening. In ontological coaching, hearing is the biological function of being cognitive of sound. On the other hand, listening goes beyond cognition and is seen as the act of interpreting what we hear. In other words, we take what we hear and then make sense of it. We can take this one step further. Human beings not only interpret what we hear, we also interpret what we see, touch, smell and taste. This leads to the idea that listening is process of interpreting what we observe through our senses and goes beyond simply our hearing. Interestingly, this allows for the idea that, although they cannot hear sound, people who are deaf are still listening.

Good listening is seen as fundamental to good relationships. With the understanding that listening is an act of interpretation rather than just hearing, this makes even greater sense. After all, how we listen to others informs what actions we take. Therefore it follows that poorer our interpretations found in our listening, then the less likely we are to address the real concerns of the other person. Hence the feeling that others are not listening to us creates a great deal of angst for the people the world over. Yet what are we saying to someone when we accuse them of not listening to us?

Generally there tend to be two aspects behind this accusation. More often than not, we are telling them that they are not paying attention to us. Given that human beings are in a constant process of interpreting their observations of the world, it means that we are always listening to something. However, our interpretations follow our observations. If I am not paying attention to you then I will struggle to effectively interpret what you are saying and most people instinctively understand this.

The second aspect of the accusation stems from the other person not "getting" what we are saying. In other words, they are not interpreting what we are saying in the way we want them to interpret our meaning. One insight here is to recognise that others are generally not choosing how to interpret what we say; they simply do this automatically. As a listener, at times, we may reflect on how we listened to someone, but it would be very unusual for someone to do this all the time. Indeed, many people would never even consider the possibility of reflecting in this way. A second insight involves the idea that listening always happens within an already existing context. What this means is that our way of interpreting something is shaped by what is important to us. Our mood, our prejudices or preferences, the meaning we ascribe to certain words, our existing interpretations, and so on.

Effective listening goes well beyond the parroting of words back at someone. If you want to become a more effective listener, we invite you to remember the three As of listening:

  1. You are "Always" listening to something. Listen to your own listening and pay attention to others when required
  2. You listen "Automatically". How you interpret something will tell you about your prejudices, assumptions and a good deal more about your self. Furthermore, how others interpret what you say will give you insights into what is important for them and allow you to take that into account in your own way of listening
  3. Finally, you have an "Already" listening, which is your context. If you want to listen more effectively to someone seek to understand their context as part of the process.

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© 2012 Chris Chittenden