The Very Cool Art of Listening

I go through a deeply unsexy routine when I have dinner with someone for the first time.

I need to explain that, due to my food allergies, I can go into an anaphylactic shock. It can happen in minutes, even seconds, without warning.

I demonstrate how to use my EpiPen correctly (because everyone’s seen Pulp Fiction, I have to clarify to not jab me through the breast plate like they did with Uma in the film – that’s poetic licence taken by Tarantino. And that can kill me. Thanks, Quentin).

Understandably, most of my fellow diners look fatigued before they’ve even unfolded their napkins, overwhelmed by this potential drama. I can see them tuning out.

Some have looked intrigued, and asked if they could inject the epinephrine in themselves. You know, for fun. (In these cases I find it best to cut the evening short.)

A rare few have taken it in their stride, asking a few questions to double check they understand the procedure, while being generally considerate and supportive.

This last group is the one I am the most fond of. Not only because I won’t accidentally perish in their capable presence, but because I know they heard me.

‘If it’s not nice, not true and not necessary, don’t say it.’ – Unknown

We rapturously elevate eloquent speakers in our society. A voice that can articulate what we feel in our hearts is, no doubt, special. But an equally inspiring talent is often overlooked: listening.

We all want to be heard.

Because:

  • When we’re heard, we feel counted.
  • To feel understood is a gift from someone who cares.
  • All we ever want is love. And listening is a profound demonstration of love.

And as giving is better than receiving, let us all listen more.

Let’s first do away with how not to listen:

1. Corporate listening. Someone somewhere did a study where they concluded that people like hearing their own names. Overzealous manager types manipulate this, thinking if we repeatedly hear our names, we will like them more.

For instance: Nupu, we would like to help you. However, Nupu, our policy does not permit us to change our policy. Before you go, Nupu, please fill out this customer form. We wish you a good day, Nupu. (Please, jab me through the breast plate right now.)

2. Therapy listening. This is basically where one person talks and the other listens, and then repeats back everything s/he just heard. I’m sure this probably does help many people, but it’s too comical to take seriously, in that ‘I feel your pain’ way.

3. Real listening but inappropriate responding. This is because listening is not just listening, but also absorbing, being sensitive to what the other person is saying (or even not saying) and responding suitably. It does not count as listening if the response to hearing someone’s fears, hopes or joy is judgment, ridicule or dismissal.

The perils of not being heard:

  • Unhappiness. Some of the unhappiest people I know are those who feel they’re not being heard in a pivotal relationship, like with a spouse or boss. (The frustration gets dumped onto other people, spreading the misery.)
  • Disconnect. We are increasingly lonely, and not being heard is why we fundamentally feel isolated. Does anyone, however self-sufficient, want to move through this world alone?
  • Overwhelm. Without an outlet for our thoughts, everything stays inside, circulating, compounding and eventually imploding/exploding. So not pretty.

So, what does ‘being heard’ actually mean? It means the other person is present. They’re not distracted, half with us, half elsewhere. We don’t feel neglected.

The very best ways to listen:

  1. Hearing someone out, all the way through, no matter who they are, without impatience or interruption. (When I was starting out in the film business, I worked with a producer who did this. Because she took everyone seriously, we all worked extra hard.)
  2. There are two schools of thought about listening vs listening+advice. I’ve heard women complain that men do the latter, when we’re only after the former. Personally, I prefer the latter. Any which way, it’s beautiful when one side intuits what the other needs at that moment, and provides that.
  3. When listening+solution-dispensation is absolutely critical: medical care. For years I had such severe abdominal pain I was incapacitated. Yet, every doctor I consulted only plied me with more pain medication, disregarding my pleas that something was seriously wrong. When I finally found a doctor who heard me, ran tests and proposed a solution, I crumpled with gratitude.

Listening is a skill, but one simple enough to cultivate. I admit, this took me an embarrassingly long time to learn.

For many years, I was intimidated by a person who I felt belittled me. My impulse was to respond with defiance. This never worked. (Surprise!)

One day, exhausted by my own aggressive/reactive behaviour, I just listened instead. The person not just softened, but actually blossomed into a warm and well-intentioned human being in front of my eyes.

I thought that in order to be heard, I needed to shout. Actually, I just had to listen.

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Maya Angelou

Related Recommendations:

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Read Quiet by Susan Cain. A compelling, well-rounded look at introverts. Her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, is also illuminating.

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See the consequences of when we hear only what we want to hear and watch Interview, two-hander with Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller, directed by Buscemi.

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Watch the multiple award-winning  An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore and understand the perils we face for not listening to the earth.

12 thoughts on “The Very Cool Art of Listening

    1. Hello Nupu….that was lovely and interesting reading about listening ( couldn’t even realize ever it may be a subject to care ;) ) and the beautiful part is seeing aunty…how pretty she was and still she is ….no wonder you captured the whole from aunty, Nupu. Hope you had a wonderful Eid with aunty after quite a long , I presume . Regards :)

      1. Hi Nayar, thanks for reading and for the feedback. I’m glad you’ve found it useful! It’s been great fun to pick out pictures from old albums, too. I hope you’re enjoying the holidays.

  1. I’d like to add another one in the ‘non listener’ category: the competitive listener or the ‘Topper’. Typically, Toppers interrupt halfway through a description and try to ‘top’ that.For example:in response to your dining intro,they’d say ‘oh you should see ME when I eat porcupine’!

    Also,all your links (for recommended film/book/documentary)lead to the ‘About’ page.Is it supposed to be like that?

    1. YES! I wrote about one of those types in my book – so didn’t include them here. There are two versions – the one who ups you, and the one who downs you. Did a workshop last year where we did the one-upmanship as an exercise, and it was hilarious.

      Thanks so much for telling me about the bad links! Oops. Have changed them.

  2. Nupster! Sorry for not writing earlier but I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying your blog (especially the post on STUFF!). I hope you are well in Dhaka. Much love.
    PS: Its amazing how much you look like your mother when she was younger.

    1. Sasharama! So thrilled you’re enjoying the blog. Yay! (I have to stop myself from making every post about STUFF… so am very pleased you liked that; plan on writing more about it.)

      I’ve never quite seen the resemblance but I’m always beyond thrilled when anyone says I look like my mother!

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