Learn to listen

In discussing the paradox of our time, the late American thinker and comedian, George Carlin (1937-2008), partly put the reality of our contemporary life thus: “We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.” He could have added that we listen too less too!

Everywhere around us, people are busy talking on air, ‘in print’ and online so much that one often wonders if anyone is listening. It is a global disease that we talk too much and there is hardly anything great we can show for it other than contestation and conflict. Another one is brewing between Greece and Turkey, as if the conflicts the world is contending with are not enough. Right now, millions of people around the world are busy talking and commenting with everyone arguing to assert their truths or make their views dominant.

Though often taken for granted, listening, apart from being the first communication skill, is also the most important one to creating peace, attaining knowledge and acquiring education. Thus, without learning to listen, peace is impossible and learning is unattainable. Studies have shown that the average reader only recalls a little more than half of what the speaker says, hence, it goes without saying that listening is a difficult skill, a point I made in a chapter in the book I edited in 2017, Dimensions of Communication for Tertiary Institutions.

Typologically, listening may be appreciative (providing pleasure to the listener), critical (requiring evaluation to make a decision), discriminative (separating emotion from message), empathetic (understanding the speaker’s feelings), and comprehensive (merging the nonverbal with verbal components, also known as informative listening). It can also be full (paying complete attention), deep (understanding beyond what is being said), false (pretending to listen but not paying attention), selective (choosing to pick just what suits one’s purpose) initial (beginning to listen but switching off later) and partial (starting to listen but trailing off track unintentionally).

To learn, one has to listen with concentration or actively listen and pay attention. This is why it is central that, for learning to take place, one must listen with concentration, listen to acquire information and evaluate, listen for faulty reasoning, listen with the right attitude, listen for the main points and separate them from the supporting points and listen for emotive language. Emotive language appears to be deceptive as it is just meant to sway the listeners and let them subordinate reason to feelings.

Everyone should realise that listening may generally be real or pseudo or active and passive as well as positive and negative. While the intention of positive listening is to gain, to understand, to learn, to connect, to help and to support the other, negative listening is motivated by the desire to argue, to win, to pick holes, find faults and subdue the other in a competitive format. True listening is both a commitment and a compliment, as rightly observed by Matthew Mckay, Patrick Fanning and Kim Paleg in their 2006 book, Couple Skills. This is why it is crucial for us to commit ourselves to communicative connectivity and accord our co-communicator or interlocutor the courtesy or compliment of listening.

Without doubt, it is desirable to cultivate positive, good and listening skills and avoid negative, bad and pseudo listening. One way of achieving the desired end of listening is to know and avoid blocks to listening. When the blocks are blocked, not only communication occurs but connection is also achieved. What are the blocks to listening that should be demolished? These are mind reading, rehearsing, filtering, judging, daydreaming, advising, sparring, being right, derailing and placating, as the authors note.

In mind reading, attention is paid to what the other person “really means” because there is no trust. Each word therefore wears a different garb that is coloured by the prejudice of the listener. If the person says yes, it is interpreted as insincere and if he says no, rather than analyze it, it is immediately concluded that the speaker never intends anything good for one. Whereas, in rehearsing, the attention of the listener is on the response to give the speaker rather than attention on what is said. If he said this, I would respond thus; if he responded thus, I would counter with this.

Filtering is discriminatory or selective as you exclude what you do not want to hear from what is said. Judging is making up your mind that the person speaking to you is a fool, a bigot, an illiterate person who is not worth your time and attention. Daydreaming, which affects many people, happens to those one is familiar with. A teacher is addressing the class and a student’s mind wanders or daydreams to the field of play for the next soccer event. Don’t daydream, concentrate! In advising, a speaker seldom finishes a sentence before the listener offers a word or two to correct or advise them.

Other blocks are sparring the speaker or listening to argue, disagree or debate with them, not to engage them. Everything said is therefore nitpicked and the tendency is to refine and re-define it.  This is similar to being right by which the speaker is already deemed to be saying nonsense since he is less perfect or intelligent than one. In derailing, the subject is changed because you don’t want to continue with a contentious topic while in placating, you just agree with everything that is said as the intention is not to understand. For instance, someone who, in a quarrel, listened to a wife and remarked that she was right told the husband the same thing after presenting his case. When the person was confronted with the ludicrousness of telling two parties in conflict to be right, he responded by saying the person too was right!

Without listening, there is no learning.


In his Civitas Dei (the City of God), St. Augustine of Hippo differentiated between the City of God and the City of Man. While the city of God is founded on peace and celestial serenity, the earthly city of man is founded on appetitive and possessive impulses which make it to be torn by conflict.

The two cities are not delineated by geographical boundaries. They are everywhere. For all that it is worth, everyone deserves peace and we can only give what we have. The cities even live within us. So a true human being in the city of God  is like a tree that gives a fruit back whenever a stone is thrown at it.

We should learn to listen, learn to love, learn to accommodate, learn to tolerate and learn to live in the city of God to enjoy our peace while those who choose to remain in the city of man and strife remain there.