We spend roughly 60% of our communication time listening, yet research suggests that we retain as little as 25% of what we hear. In our louder and louder world, we seem to have lost of the art of listening. Is it possible to re-tune our ears for conscious listening… to other people and to the world around us?
Experts liken the practice of listening to a mental process of extraction and refer to ‘psychological noise’ as one of the biggest blocks to listening. ‘There are many types of “noise” that can interfere with the listener’s ability to successfully decode a message,’ says Social Worker Claire Voges, a SACAP educator who conducts a variety of the modules that form part of the college’s Bachelor of Psychology and Bachelor of Applied Social Science Degrees.
Voges differentiates between ‘physical noise’ (a train racing past or workers drilling nearby) and ‘semantic noise’, which she describes as ‘a disturbance in understanding the actual words spoken’ (because of a language barrier, for instance, or a doctor explaining a patient’s condition using professional jargon or ‘medicalese’). ‘Both of these kinds of “noise” are fairly obvious and generally easy to correct. Less easy to spot, however, is “psychological noise” – our own preoccupation with our thoughts and feelings that draws us inside of ourselves and negatively impacts on our ability to be fully present with the person with whom we are connecting.’
Naturally, in the counselor-patient therapeutic relationship, listening is crucial to efficacy. As a lecturer of SACAP’s Fundamentals of a Helping Relationship module, Clinical Psychologist Marc Lipshitz says that key to being a good listener is ‘to keep quiet’. ‘In their very first class with me, I ask my students to listen to a fellow student without either of them saying a word. Body language and, simply, the presence of the other convey a wealth of information about the communicator.’
Like Voges, Lipshitz claims that the listener’s own mental preoccupations are one of the major barriers to effective listening. ‘So often we forget what it actually means to help. We falsely believe that, as recipients of a communication, we are expected to fix or solve the problem presented to us, when, really, our role is simply one of facilitation – to guide the other person to gain insight and find their own solutions. This idea that, as a listener, we are required to perform makes us anxious and this inner anxiety effectively deafens us to what we’re hearing.’
Along with expectations concerning the role we bring to a conversation, experts are unanimously agreed that a degree of self-awareness is vital to being an effect listener, especially for those, like counsellors and therapists, who are in the business of helping others. ‘In Counselling and Coping, authors Gibson, Swartz and Sandenbergh claim that understanding and dealing with our feelings is the first step to helping others to deal with theirs,’ says Cheryl Inggs, who, like Lipshitz, is responsible for preparing students for a career in professional counselling via the Fundamentals of a Helping Relationship module. Inggs further quotes social researcher Hugh Mackay, who, in The Good Listener, says ‘a good definition of communication is, simply, the sharing of meaning’ and ‘it is not what our message does to the listener, but what the listener does with our message’.
What is interesting, notes Voges, is how the general public views listening: ‘I once had a friend ask me how my day was and, when I replied that it had been good but that I was very tired, he remarked, “but all you do is sit and listen to people all day! How can that be tiring?”. His comment is indicative of the lack of understanding of what it means to truly listen: being fully present with someone can be exhausting but it is a huge gift and the person being properly heard will walk away feeling acknowledged and understood. We all need a witness to our worlds and the best witness is someone who is able to sit with us through the dark spaces and really listen.’