Keep quiet and don't look stupid

It seems that we don't much care for good listening.

If you look around, it's mostly about who is the loudest, who can shout down the other person and thereby win an argument. I suppose there's not a lot of appeal in being a good listener, and probably not very much money to be made from it. The focus tends toward what we're putting out there in the world: Am I marketing myself right, am I saying the right things in the right way to the right people at the right time?

On chat shows and election debates, in the columns and magazines, in the thorny discussions about affirmative action down the pub, the aim of the argument is often to silence the other person with our meticulous logic or sheer force of conviction. That mainstay of the internet age, the Comments Section, gives away how aggressive people are in their argument, and how lacking in their listening.

We learn how to speak better, write better, market ourselves better, deliver public speeches. There is hardly ever an emphasis on listening, and that listening is a skill we might want to train. People aren't often praised for being good listeners, and you're unlikely to see it listed as a skill on a LinkedIn profile.

They say that an artist spends two-thirds of her time studying her subject and only the remaining third on creating the artwork itself. Much the same principle could be applied to speaking and listening; if we're not collecting material, how can we ever hope to have something worth saying?

With that in mind, we turned to the question of what listening is really about, and how we might improve.


A prerequisite for good listening is being available to learn. Few people go into debates with the expectation of gaining something from the exchange. The intent is to convey an opinion we already have. To listen well is to accept that you don't have all the answers, and that it isn't necessary to reply to everything. Talking on a subject, forwarding an opinion presupposes that we have a certain amount of knowledge on the subject. How often often are we guilty of speaking authoritatively on a subject without any real knowledge of the subject?

In this, listening is an act of humility. To listen well is to put aside one's own ideas and assumptions, suspend the right to talk, and let another person's voice be at the centre of your attention. It requires bypassing the preconception of what someone will say, and allow them to say it as if we hear it for the first time.

The implications of listening extend to the political sphere, the politics of Feminism and civil rights movements in particular. Ruth and I have often debated the place of men in Feminism, whether they have a role, as privileged people, in Feminism, or if gender necessarily excludes them from participation. It seems to me that the most important action that men can take with regard to Feminism is to listen, and be content without being vocal.

The stories of women are ignored or written off because men haven't seen the cat-calling or sexual assault for themselves. One of the most important steps that men can take if they want to engage positively with Feminism is to listen properly to women and take them seriously. As a man, it's not my place to speak on behalf of women, but it is my place to point to the voices that we should all be listening to, and to not invalidate those voices by talking over them.

Furthermore, when the aim is to silence an opponent with the force of an argument there is a danger of missing crucial information about the other person's beliefs and motivations. In most of the UK and Democrat America,, for example, it's commonplace to ridicule supporters of Donald Trump, and while I concede that this is amusing, there is a risk of not hearing correctly.

What is a voter expressing in their support of President Trump? Superficially, one would cite his apparent racism and misogyny. This may be an aspect of a person's support, but what else could it mean about disillusionment with the existing political system, or identity crisis in the face of increasing globalisation. It's worth listening to everyone, but it might be especially important to listen to people who we disagree with.


There is another aspect to this listening business, which is all the more prevalent in the modern age: listening is an act of presence. The mobile internet revolution in many ways takes users away from the present moment, to concerns of how well a post will trend or watching concerts through a phone screen.

The plethora of platforms and social media accounts means that it's possible to be digitally present all the time, at the expense of physical presence with people. It's tempting, and even permissible, to have a face-to-face interaction on the one hand, and keep up several other conversations by phone at the same time. And there isn't a millennial alive who looks up from their phone and finds themselves in a room full of people, all heads down, thumbs tapping and not a word said out loud.

The effect of lacking presence on listening is clear: attention is fractured through many channels, and with that the ability to focus one's listening is greatly reduced. There's contested evidence about whether social media is shortening our attention span (and whether attention span can be measured meaningfully at all), but you don't need to see a study to know that the pinging and vibrating is taking you away from the moment. I too easily reach for my phone mid-conversation.

In short, the availability and quantity of distractions has made us ruder and less attentive.


Having resolved that listening more would be beneficial (especially since Ruth and I are both writers), the next step would be to work out how to get better at listening. Though we're musing here about how this fundamental asset has been overlooked, neither of us are exactly experts.

Putting the phone away in conversation is a good start. Then there’s learning to shut up and bite your tongue, as well as making an effort to actually listen to a person, not just mentally rehearsing a response. A noble aim, but vague.

To that end, there’s a kind of listening formula that one might use: Receive, appreciate, summarise, ask. The act of repeating back what someone says to you gets you in the habit of closely paying attention when you’re receiving information. It’s easy enough to not listen at all, in meetings or in a class when you’re asked for an opinion and realise you’ve completely zoned out.

As noted in this piece from Fast Company, perhaps the best way to become a better listener is to stop thinking about what you'll say next. If you use the above-mentioned R.A.S.A formula, rather than just rehearsing and then vomiting up your reply, you're much more likely to get into the substance of an issue, rather than solutionising the superficial symptoms.

A more conscious listening process slows you down and, crucially, gives you the space to think before speaking. I am a firm believer that many problems would be avoided if only one were less quick to blurt something out. If we speak slowly, we spend less time picking up the conversational pieces we smash everywhere.

It's not just a noisy world of opinion and media, but an acoustically messy environment all around. For residents of the city, there is hardly ever a moment of silence. You hear your vertical neighbour tramping around upstairs in the apartment block, or a couple arguing next door, or the rush of the road outside. Even most places in the countryside there is the constant whisper of an A-road over the hedgerow. There is always the dim hubbub of notifications and information and the constant hum of modern life.

In this sense, listening isn’t so much a skill to develop, but an attitude of reception that we take toward others and toward our environment.

To that end, as well as training your listening, you can focus on improving your hearing - the very act of sensing and perceiving sound. I dug out a TED talk by Julian Treasure, a listening fanatic, which I thought would be about listening to other people’s opinions, but it was actually about hearing and paying attention to the sounds and acoustics of our surroundings. He’s an advocate for seeking silence to reset our ears, and tuning into the sounds in our environment as you might filter sounds through on a sound system or mixing desk.

Listening involves changing our position in the world, from how we receive opinions, how we respond in daily conversations, even developing the consciousness of the very sounds and noises that we receive. In this sense, listening isn't so much a skill to develop, but an attitude of reception that we take toward others and toward our environment.


Good listening is a challenge.

Perhaps that’s why there’s not generally much value attached to it. It involves being humble enough to keep quiet, choosing to listen in a world that encourages us to shout, learning to sift through the noise to find the significant, and staying in the present when we would be led to other places.

And the point of all this listening isn’t never to speak and only ever receive information. The goal with listening is to better understand the world we are speaking into and to talk from humility and readiness to learn, not arrogance and assuming that the answers are ours.

Listening properly allows you to think before you act, and stops you jumping to conclusions. Like the watching artist, it's essential to get properly acquainted with the subject matter.

The upcoming generation has a genuine desire to improve the world, to find meaingful work which is beneficial to society. The downside is that we hurry into problems we don't understand, and our enthusiasm means we can't wait to begin working on a solution before we've really listened to the problem.

Of course the irony is that by writing an article such as this, we are throwing our ideas out into the and necessarily claiming our expertise on this topic. All we can do is share our thoughts, and both of us commit to a life of better listening.

It’s fitting to finish with this saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "It is better to be silent and not thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."