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Listening is a favorite topic and is covered in all courses on Communication, of which it is an integral part anyway.
It is emphasized with great force and vigor that one must listen. At a more advanced level, it is also said that we must not listen for words only; we must listen for emotions and feelings also. Studies suggest that in the communication process, relative contribution of Words, Tone, and Expression goes like this.
- Words – (verbal part) 7%
- Tone – (emotional part) 38%
- Expression – (physical part) 55%
If words are so unimportant, why is there so much emphasis on words, vocabulary and dictionary? Why do some learned people bring difficult, rare and exotic words to make a flowery speech? Is it better to use simple words or complex words? Do complex words really impress others? We can settle the Words Part right here. Words are important, but not critical. It is better to use simple words and short phrases. If words become difficult, even 7% contribution may be lost.
Tone is quite effective. We can understand happiness, anger, sadness and other such things from speech even when it is in a language which we do not understand. Tone is fortunately quite universal, and we have conditioned our minds to associate particular tone with particular emotion. In fact, we expect it to happen the same way in all cases. If it is different, it baffles us, and we refuse to accept. Malcom Gladwell in his latest book ‘Talking to Strangers’ has dealt with this phenomenon at length. He explains it, highlights its problems, but suggests that such universality is necessary for us to live together socially. Tone is so effective that we can convey a range of emotions without even raising voice. As Listeners, we focus more on Tone and less on Words and try to find clues from Tone. When someone is speaking in a flat Tone, we are confused and upset. We cannot make much out of it.
Expression is a combination of facial expression, hands gestures, and body postures. All may be used together or in various combinations. Expressions also vary between cultures. In some countries, hands are used more while in others face is used more to convey the emotion in the message. Expressions form the bulk of communication, overriding Words and Tone. It is fortunately so, otherwise, people who cannot listen or speak would have hard time conveying their messages.
When we are listening, we listen to all above factors and then understand the communication fully.
There are several barriers in communication; unclear idea or thought, inappropriate words/tone/expressions, unfavorable environment, attention deficit, wrong interpretation, and cultural differences.
Rather than focusing on barriers, I would like to share from Erich Fromm, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist (1900 – 1980). He addressed the matter of Listening in a 1974 seminar in Switzerland. The long discourse was later transcribed and published as a 400-page book ‘The Art of Listening’. You can imagine how much emphasis is there on listening from the length of this single volume.
Erich Fromm was a practicing psychologist and had argued that Listening “is an art like the understanding of poetry”. He offered the following guidelines for mastering the art.
- The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
- Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
- He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
- He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
- The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
- Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.
Maria Popova suggests that communication is an effort which has unpredictable outcomes. Although we apparently communicate freely, but actually it is an act of courage. When we convey words, feelings and emotions, there are always two possible outcomes. One is that we may be understood, and therefore may be able to transmit what exactly we wanted to do. Second is that we may be misunderstood and the effort to transmit across fails. In every exchange, both possibilities exist. Even then, we courageously keep up with the communication.
So far, we have talked about live communication. What happens when we read the written words, when we see a painting, we see landscapes, natural sceneries, when we see acting and dance performances on screen or live; we listen to instrumental music.
We connect with the music, painting, poetry, painting, landscapes, nature and many other things, absorb them and complete the Listening process.
Ursula K. Le Guin (Oct 1929 – Jan 2018) says: ‘Listening is not a reaction; it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we do not so much respond as join in – become part of the action.’
This is the highest level of communication where the parties involved become completely synced with each other. They all join the action; sending and receiving at the same time.
Communication is the key to living. It is the most important sign of our existence. Within communication, Listening is more critical than Speaking. We all need to work upon mastering the Art of Listening constantly, consistently and continuously.