Tune in your ears and listen to this: 75 per cent of people are only engaged in the activity of passive hearing. Listening has become an underrated virtue. With fleeting attentions, increasing restlessness, and uninterrupted exposure to technology, oral communication is often ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten, making listening an informal physical activity. But there is more to it. Listening attentively says a lot about our psychological nature. It’s an engagement of our mental faculties that allow us to be constructive in our inter-personal relationships. So why are we unable to focus? Why do we want to be heard more than hearing out? Turns out, listening involves deep and conscious effort.
The peripheral nature of hearing makes it a limiting activity. This passive act of receiving sound waves through the ears is a psychological activity involving analysis and interpretation of sounds one hears. A dog barking on the streets will get a different reaction than to a tiger roaring in a forest safari. That’s why listening is filtered hearing and can only be achieved through years of subconscious training. This process starts when one is an infant and develops with cognitive retention as we step into adulthood. Brain learns to differentiate between the many audio signals it receives and learns to prioritise them, says Dr. WVBS Ramalingam, Senior Consultant & Director, ENT and Cochlear Implant, BLK Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi.
Listening is an acquired skill while hearing is an inborn ability and there could be many reasons for our failing listening virtues. Information overload, a term introduced by American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970, seems to be making most sense in today’s time. Our short-term memory is continuously being assaulted with information, making it an exhaustive process to assimilate all of it. It’s not uncommon to develop Information Fatigue Syndrome, a stress disorder wherein the burden of information is unimaginably profound. It could also be the malady of the present age - low tolerance levels and boredom that surfaces too soon. Their need for a new stimulus every few minutes has resulted in decreasing patience. Of course, Attention Deficit Disorder could be a big reason too, says Dr Monica Chib, senior consultant, Psychiatry and Psychology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi. Then there are times when you find people breaking the flow of a conversation to re-direct attention towards themselves.
Fact is, if you’re not someone who gets heard out a lot, chances are you’ll never hear someone out. Frequently interrupting a conversation to divert attention back to your own is a subconscious habit that stimulates disengagement with the other person. Professor of Sociology at Boston College, Charles Derber, summed it best. The quality of any interaction depends on the tendencies of those involved to seek and share attention. There is competition when people focus attention mainly on themselves. Besides developing active verbal skills such as summarising, clarifying when in doubt, empathising, not being judgemental, studying the tone and remembering what the other person is saying, it’s important to nourish non-verbal skills such as eye contact, posture and mirroring expressions.
There is also a biological aspect to it. Studies have found that we speak at about 130 words per minute but we have the ability to listen to around 400. On the other hand, we can think about 1,000 so the 600-word difference is often filled in by introducing other thoughts.