The art of listening

The art of listening

May 11, 2017

By N.K.A. Ballal, Retd. Sr. Vice-President, ITDC

Viktor Frankl, one of the great psychiatrists of the twentieth century, survived the death camps of Nazi Germany. His little book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is one of those life-changing books that everyone should read.

Frankl once told the story of a woman who called him in the middle of the night to calmly inform him she was about to commit suicide. Frankl kept her on the phone and talked her through her depression, giving her reason after reason to carry on living. Finally, she promised she would not take her life, and she kept her word.

When they later met, Frankl asked which reason had persuaded her to live?

“None of them”, she told him.

What then influenced her to go on living, he pressed.

Her answer was simple, it was Frankl’s ‘willingness to listen’ to her in the middle of the night.

A world in which there was someone ready to listen to another’s pain seemed to her a world in which it was worthwhile to live. Often, it is not the brilliant argument that makes the difference. Sometimes the small act of listening is the greatest gift we can give.

Let us take the example of the epic  Mahabharatha. The ending might have been different if only the master Dronacharya  listened properly and reacted. When  Dronacharya asked Yudhistira whether his son Aswatthama had been killed, Yudhistira, on instructions from Krishna, replied “Aswatthama Hatha and whispered Kunjara”. [An elephant  named Aswatthama had been killed]. Dronacharya heard the first two words and renounced his weapons and got killed. If only he had listened properly may be the  end result of the epic war would have been different… True?

A visit to any Church would reveal the presence of a “confession box”.  All the priests  are trained to listen. They listen to the woes  and problems of  the common man or women and send them back  saying “do not worry, the Lord will take care”.Having ‘unburdened’ their problems, people feel relieved. This is unofficial counselling.

The art of listening is not easy. As a head of a  PSU, we were trained to listen to the grievances of our workers, day in and day out. Some of the grievances could not be solved and the workers also knew it but nevertheless they had to be heard. At least in person, one can make out the anguish or pain of the person and  react but when hearing a problem on phone, one is left to his own wisdom to react and give advice. One has to judge the tone and react accordingly. As Peter Drucker the Management Guru  has told “the most important thing in communication is hearing what is  not said”.

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Hearing is not necessary listening nor is it necessary listening well. There is a lot of difference between hearing and listening.

Most of the people come to converse with their own agendas and to make their own point of view heard. If one observes, most of the time the conversations become meaningless and after half-an-hour if one were to ask as to what was discussed, you would draw a blank look. Very rarely does one put our entire attention or heart into truly listening and understanding any bit of conversation. Is the art of listening some rocket science? Or is it a born gift?  For some it is, but for the majority it is a cultivated discipline.  God has deliberately created two ears and only one tongue so that we talk less and listen more!  Now let us look into some basic rules which will cultivate the discipline of a good listener

  1. Eye contact: Simple but most forgotten. People always open up and trust those who have the habit of looking directly at them instead of looking down or here and there.
  2. Do not interrupt unnecessarily: This is one of the most annoying habits one should avoid when conversing. It is irritating and puts off people.

If the person who is talking values your opinions, he or she would like to hear it out after they have finished their own thought process and not before. At the same time it is also important to interrupt in the conversations to ask pertinent questions on the subject to understand it. When in doubt, get it cleared. To make sure both of you are on the same wave length. Another important point is that you should make appropriate noises like grunts or use words like “okay” or “fine” etc., in between the conversation to make the person talking realise that you are actually following the talk.

  1. Do not let your mind wander: Our mind can think about 800 words per minute compared to about 150 words one can speak. Hence it is important to concentrate and not let the mind wander on its own course.
  2. No negative judgments: The judgemental part should be left to the last after hearing out completely. Sometimes we tend to make our own judgments and opinions and tend to break the communication thought of the other person. It is also important to understand the body language, tone and most importantly, the pauses.
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These are just some tips. No two persons are alike. Hence you have to use your own wisdom and communicate. But if you are a good listener, you would be an asset for any organisation. Lot of bosses do not give direct and specific instructions.

But if one learns to interpret their words and actions and do the needful, your career is made. If one listens carefully one can read between the lines!

With experience, a good listener also learns the knack of shutting up people politely without hurting them when the talk goes overboard. If talking is silver, silence is gold. It is tough not to talk or respond but to keep quiet and listen. In the olden  days if one recollects, the sages used to preach that one has to do “Maun Vrat” once in a while. Even in this modern age, lots of Gurukuls practice this art of silence.

To conclude, the art of listening can be acquired by sheer practice and practice. The art of listening is a important and essential life skill which will help you in your every day life and also improve your communication with friends and family.  For some it is a born gift. Exception to the rule is our own Shri Arnab Goswami, who does not allow anyone to complete a sentence. Too. Do you agree ?

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