We Can Only Listen Once

  Cultivating the art of listening

Listening is the most valuable skill nobody teaches. Since this is an activity that happens in the mind, we need to be involved actively in the process. Otherwise, we're just hearing. Contrary to common assumption, when we're listening we should not be passive, like receivers, our participation is required for comprehension.

It takes considerable energy to pay attention to someone speaking and elaborate the information mentally. In How to Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer Adler compares listening to the catcher behind the plate—he's just as active as the pitcher in the baseball game, catching is as much an activity as throwing and requires as much skill, though it is skill of a different kind.

By using our mind to reach out, we penetrate through the words and sentences to connect with the mind that spoke them. The person doing the talking also bears some responsibility to maintain coherence and interest. Listening actively is so difficult and requires so much energy, that it must be worth the attention and time.

Since we can only listen once, when we listen we must take some steps to structure our intake of information. In the case of the sales talk:

listeners must be on guard against the tricks of persuasion that may occur in the effort to sell them something, to enlist their support for a political policy or candidate, or to get them to carry out a managerial decision to do business in a certain way.

If we're not skilled at detecting that someone is trying to persuade us to do something or feel differently, we may take the information in without comparing it to other sources or questioning the source. When we're able to detect persuasion, we have the ability to discount for the speaker's motivation.

When the motivation is to add to our knowledge, or change our understanding or think differently about an issue, we have a lecture. In this case:

listeners must be both docile and critical, both predisposed to learn rather than resistant of indifferent to what is being taught, yet at the same time not wishing to swallow whole what is laid before them.

We must be demanding

To stay awake, we should engage the mind with questions about the speech or talk. Adler recommends we use four simple questions:

  1. What is the whole speech about? What is the speaker trying to say and how is does he go about saying it?
  2. What are the main or pivotal ideas, conclusions, and arguments? What are the special terms used to express these ideas and to state the speaker's conclusions and arguments?
  3. Are the speaker's conclusions sound or mistaken? Are they well-supported by his arguments, or is that support inadequate in some respect? Was the speaker's thinking carried far enough or were matters that were relevant to his controlling purpose not touched on?
  4. What of it? What consequences follow from the conclusions the speaker wished to have adopted? What are their importance and significance to me?

Using this list of questions to prepare a speech will help us address the audience's mind and make it easier for them to make sense of what we're saying. Which is why creating an outline of a speech before writing it is a good idea—it defines the topic, the themes, the take aways as well as the projected outcomes the audience can use to determine what to do with it.

… but also effective

During the speech, we should take notes. Best by putting pen to paper because we engage more of our senses.

Because we do most of our writing using a keyboard, we deprive ourselves of the sensory experience of actually putting skin in the game. We build a certain distance between our thoughts and our expression when we mediate the process via a keyboard and screen. The sensory input and output are not the same.

Studies have shown that we retain information better when we hand write on a pad. Our vision helps us by retaining a photographic memory of what we wrote or sketched, for starters. On a spectrum from most to least remembered, we retain more of what we create physically when we add manual ability.

As we scribble down our notes, we should observe at least four things:

  1. is the speech well organized and does it follow a linear path? This is easier to detect when they announce what to pay attention to and how they plan to go about it. In that case, we should start writing things down right away. Regardless, we should be ready to write the central idea.
  2. we should note and record any special words or terms the speaker defines; we should also note any words or expressions (acronyms, too) we don't understand to look them up
  3. does logic drive the premise to the conclusion through sound reasoning?
  4. we should note the reasons, evidence, and arguments the speaker uses to connect premise to conclusion

If we're listening to the persuasive kind of speech, we should use a different set of observations:

  1. what is the speaker trying to sell or getting me to do/feel?
  2. why does the speaker think I should be persuaded—what reasons and facts are put forth?
  3. what points relevant to me are missing?
  4. what questions that matter to me went unaddressed?

This set of questions is why typically persuaders engage in two-way talks with the audience.They ask questions of the audience, or answer questions addressing hypothetical objections.

While being able to decipher messiness and variance in our own output greatly enhances our ability to connect information and learn, it does not help us elaborate the information. For that, we need to create a new series of notes that improve what we jotted down by adding how what we listened to affected us.

Adler provides some ideas to structure our rewrite so we can connect the information:

  1. create a summary with as much detail as the main thesis of the speech, including premise and assumptions, any significant words or phrases and the conclusion(s). If we agree, we're done. If we don't
  2. we record what we didn't understand, why he said something without enough support, why he might have failed to address objections and whether we agree or not on the rest of the talk. We may also decide to suspend judgment until we can learn more. The last part of this process is
  3. to make sense of the significance to us

This is the reflection part of the listening process.

Survival instinct makes us listen

There's one situation when we listen in rapt attention and don't need to take notes—when we're in danger. When the captain on a flight talks about an emergency landing, we're all ears and adrenaline. Our mind in such circumstances goes into hyper-attention and we do question… we're very fast at putting information with action (even when we panic).

But it's temporary. As reported by playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, American novelist Gertrude Stein said:

Everyone, when they're younger, has a little bit of genius, that is, they really do listen. They can listen and talk at the same time. Then they grow a little older and many of them get tired and listen less and less. but some, a very few, continue to listen. And finally they get very old and they don't listen anymore. That is very sad; let us not talk about it.


Listening well takes work. If we remember to do only one thing, it should be to listen to understand rather than just to respond. Making sense of things requires a different process, and set of questions. If we want to actively exercise our listening skills, we can use five techniques based on the work of William Isaacs—think slow, look to disprove, mind the gap, notice resistance, and stand still. 


[image via wikipedia]