Listening With Your Ears

“You can listen as well as you hear”

But we usually don’t. I believe that was the point of the lyric from the 1989 (US Release) song, “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics. One of the verses of that song goes like this:

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thoughts
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talkin’ in defense

Doesn’t that sound like too many of our relationships? Whether in families or company meetings, there is a lot of talking that goes on. But, much of it misses actual communication or connection either because people are talking at the same time or because they are speaking “different languages” or they are hearing but not listening. The chorus to the song above says,

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear ,,,

And you can, but there is a difference between listening and hearing.

Hearing – is the physical response of the body (your ears) to sound. Your ear hears the sounds whether you listen to them or not. Hearing may be completely active (as when one is attending a concert) or passive (where the person may or may not focus on the sound as with background noise) or, in many other cases, a combination of both.

Listening – is a conscious recognition of the sounds you hear. It is active, and it is a skill. The intent of the listener is to understand what this being said, what was meant by it, and then to determine the appropriate response, if any.1

Similar Point Different Source

There is a salient piece of wisdom found in the pages of the Bible. In a general letter written to Christian believers, James (the half-brother of Jesus) wrote:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)

Wow, we almost always get that backwards. How many times are we quick to speak, slow to listen (if at all) and quick to become angry? In fact, quite often when we are “listening” we’re actually formulating what we want to say next. I would argue that that’s not listening at all.

If we take James’ advice and consider our natural proportions it would seem to suggest that we should listen at least twice as much as we talk. There is something even deeper in this piece of wisdom. There seems to be a parallel in James’ mind between the amount of listening and the amount of anger. When we talk first, chances are the other person is doing the same thing. It’s human nature. When two or more are talking at the same time we become frustrated because we can’t get our point across. This is the atmosphere in which anger grows. We do this for several reasons. Among those may be

  1. This person belongs to a particular group (management, labor, a political party, child, adult, either gender, etc.) and we believe we already know how “they” think.
  2. We know this person and maybe have had similar conversations in the past so we believe we already know what they’re thinking.
  3. It doesn’t matter to us what the other person is thinking, we have a point to make and we may even have the authority to press the point (we’re the boss)

It Takes More Than Just Ears

Hearing requires functional ears. Listening requires discipline (and can be done even without ears). The first discipline for good listening is to close our mouths. There are other disciplines critical to excellent listening related to hearing that we should work to develop. Among them are:

  1. Listen for the words. What words are being used? Do they fit the setting? Is this a formal conversation or a casual conversation? I like to say, “The beginning of Wisdom is the definition of terms.” What do the words mean? Are they emotionally charges words (“Never,” “Always”, “Why?”, etc.)?
  2. Listen for the tone of voice. This will tell a lot about the speaker’s frame of mind and emotional state. Is the tone relaxed or tense? What emotions can you detect in the speaker’s tone of voice? Happiness? Fear? Anger? Exasperation? This is always necessary but particularly so if the conversation is over the phone
  3. Listen for other sounds. Is the speaker laughing or sighing or crying or spitting with every word?
  4. Listen for the breathing pattern. Does it match the other things you’re hearing? A person may be straining to remain calm and seem so initially but an accelerated breathing pattern could be a signal that there is something else going on. Breathing patterns also let you know when it’s your turn to talk or when the other person has something to say.
  5. Listen for what is not being said. Sometimes this is more important than what is being said. For example, your 7 year old comes to tell you the story of what happened that caused their 5 year old sibling to cry. The story includes nothing about how your 7 year old came to know this information. You may suspect they were involved in some way. You may want to ask some relevant questions at this point (we’ll discuss this in another post)

The last line in the chorus to the Mike and the Mechanics song is:

It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

Let’s not be the people in the song. 


1 The Art of Asking, e-book, by Terry J. Fadem,  p. 149

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