1. Some conversations are universal. Any inmate of a long relationship will recognise the ritual exchanges of a non-listening conversation. For instance, you might ask: ‘Should I wear the blue skirt, or are my legs better in the black?’ ‘Yes,’ he’ll reply, gazing at the TV. He can look in two directions at once, you see, including through his eyelids. If in the mood for an argument (one you’ve also had many times) you’ll answer: ‘“Yes” what? It was an either-or question.’ On form, he’ll say, ‘Yes, your legs look best in black.’ If really sharp, he’ll add: ‘But you weren’t asking me. You were thinking aloud, weren’t you?’
2. Occasionally non-listening conversations are comforting; a sign you’re so at one that you’re really listening, even when you’re not. On bad days, however, they seem symptoms of indifference. They highlight a grim reality of listening, which, like housework, is observed more in the neglect than the performance. Although often mistaken for a state of passivity, in fact listening is an activity. It should be seen and heard.
3. Far from talk’s demure shadow, listening is its potent creative partner, able to direct discussion, prevent faux pas, and forge connections. Great listeners appreciate that the truly charismatic don’t show off: they’re too busy, making us feel like the most interesting people in the room. Since they pay attention, they also know what we want to hear. Thus the tactful Victorian statesman Lord Rendel influenced his talkative Prime Minister, Gladstone, starting ‘a new trend of thought with the most innocent suggestion’, and using the gentlest pressure to ‘confirm or moderate’ a policy.
4. In theory, listening entails two tasks: projecting (displaying your listening) and detecting (interpreting what you’re hearing). But it’s more fluid than that. Show enthusiasm and the other person becomes more engaging. Interrupt with a judicious question or summary, and he may reconsider his position without even noticing that you’ve talked him into it.
5. Most important of all, listening transmits a message: recognition. And for their empathy, listeners are privileged to see the world from another point of view. Neglect such acknowledgement and communication soon breaks down. ‘I adore life in society,’ commented Louis XIV’s trend-setting daughter-in-law, la duchesse du Maine. ‘Everyone listens to me, and I listen to no one.’ Unsurprisingly, her fashionable reign was brief.
As seen in ES magazine