“You’re hearing, but not listening.” In the last few days, I have been told this statement at least two-three times by the same person. As with any of the other criticism in my life, this was again an opportunity to reflect and hopefully come out improved. But, as I thought about it, a question came to me. If what was told was correct, then why wasn’t I listening? Maybe I am biased, but I don’t think that’s true. I was listening actively and trying hard to be listened to by the other person, but somehow that wasn’t coming across. I felt like shouting but couldn’t (it was a professional setting, you see). This whole process of us trying to make each other listen continued for half an hour, and we got nowhere. The process is still going on, but I guess now I have decided not to try to get the other person to listen to me; I’ll listen and go on from there.
But this blog is not just about this story or this incident. It’s about the whole issue of hearing and listening. Why are many so of us on so many occasions hearing but not listening? The answer, as I realized, can be twofold.
First, the person who is telling you that you are not listening may actually be the one who is not listening. Often, people have already made up their minds long before the conversation starts. So, unless you agree with their preconceived notion, for them it’s always going to be: “You are hearing but not listening.” The way to proceed here is challenging; you can try to make them listen, plead to their rationality, argue, and hope to be heard, or you can give up. The option you take would depend on the relationship and how much that person or relationship matters to you. In the case I related earlier, I have decided to give up.
Second, maybe both of you are not listening. This is a worse situation than the previous one and describes the situation around the world between liberals and conservatives. Both approach a conversation with preconceived notions and often not with a mindset to budge from their stance—or to listen. Solution: get into a shouting match, or if you are civilized, just agree to disagree. It’s never going to be a productive conversation unless both enter with the intent of listening and rationally arriving at a conclusion. The expectation should not be to change each other but rather to learn from each other and walk away more informed.
These conversations have become a standard feature around us. It limits our evolution as a society. We need to listen more to each other. There are three pillars to a great conversation.
- Humility: Accept that our knowledge of any topic or situation would always be incomplete, and therefore anyone can be a teacher or a student.
- Critical thinking: We need to develop an ability to identify fallacy in logic and shortfalls in evidence.
- Sympathetic listening: Understanding from another person’s perspective while making sure not to look for a misstep in logic continuously.
By applying the above rules in our conversations, we can have productive discussions and avoid falling into the trap of “hearing but not listening.”
Kunal Gupta is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering