Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Are you listening?

How easy it is not to pay proper attention to other people. Not to listen properly, not to take in everything they’re saying, not to register the nuances and subtleties and little details. How easy it is to be distracted, to let your mind wander.

I think it’s one of the most insulting things you can do, to listen to someone with only half an ear as if what they’re saying isn’t really important or interesting or valid. As if you’ve got something much more exciting lined up and you’re only listening to them out of politeness.

In today’s hectic world, it’s so common to be thinking of something else while you’re outwardly paying attention. What you were doing an hour ago, or what you’ll be doing in an hour’s time. Some domestic or marital or family crisis. A big news story. Some detail of the other person’s clothing or appearance. Anything but the full content of what they’re saying.

I think I’m listening to someone carefully. Then they say something that makes it clear I was miles away. The row with their husband? What row? When did they mention that? And I have to somehow tease out the details without revealing that I had drifted off for a while.

Listening, true listening, is a huge talent that many of us don’t possess. We have to keep on working at it. It always astounds me when someone really listens to me, so attentively they can recall every little detail of what I told them, even things I barely mentioned.

The trouble is, we’re all so busy nowadays that we’ve got used to only half-attending to people, and used to other people only half-attending to us. A lot of the time we don’t even realise we’re distracted, we think we’re fully present. It comes as a jolt when something makes our inattention glaringly obvious.

The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz says that what every person wants is to know they’re worth thinking about, that they’re not just an irrelevant nothing. And you can only feel that if other people are fully engaged with you. Nobody likes that glossed-over feeling.


  1. I flatter myself that I am a good listener. Unfortunately, I am increasingly finding it difficult to listen well because people do not talk about anything important any more. I now avoid social situations where nothing of import is discussed and where I am forced to listen to drivel.

  2. Ramana: Sorry to hear so many of your conversations are disappointing. I sometimes have the same experience. People do often seem to play safe with polite nonsense rather than risk anything heartfelt.

  3. Sorry, did you just say something?


    Yes, it's something I'm aware I don't do enough of.

  4. Roses: Oh, it doesn't matter, it wasn't important....

    It's hard, isn't it, especially if you have a fertile imagination that's fizzing away while you're trying to listen.

  5. WHat can I say here? It's what I do for a living.

  6. Agent: Indeed. By now you must be very good at it. And your clients would be particularly offended if you weren't listening....

  7. I'm listening, I'm listening... Oh look! See that Guy over there....!

    What did you say?

  8. Grannymar: You're obviously far too busy looking for toyboys to concentrate on what I'm saying. I said, you're obviously far too busy....

  9. There is listening and there is listening. The easiest to listen to is a stranger. The closer you are to someone the harder: Because you are expected (and hope) to read BETWEEN the lines. AND - the closer you are the more the other person will have not so much their own agenda as their own perception of you, coloured by their own outlook on life. And vice versa.

    Unlike you, Nick, I find people do listen as best they can. But then I am an engaging person, aren't I? Just as I find everyone, and I mean everyone, engaging. And if I have drifted off because a particular thought of theirs sent me into my own little orbit I will say: "Sorry, wasn't listening properly. What did you just say two minutes ago after ...?"

    Communication is difficult at the best of times. And I am suspicious of people who call themselves 'good listeners'. Let the 'listened to' be the judge of that.

    What we all want is to be understood. It's a holy grail. And the sooner we acknowledge that in ourselves and others the sooner we will be forgiving to occasionally disappoint and be disappointed.

    And, Nick, if you talk to me in a crowded bar I assume it can't be that important what you are saying because, honestly,I can't hear you.


  10. I have one friend who I have noticed doesn't listen to me or really, most anyone. It's because she's addicted to her cell phone. When she sits down, she always puts the damn thing front and center on the table, constantly checking her messages.

  11. Ursula: That's a good distinction between strangers and close friends. As you say, a close friend expects you to read between the lines but it's easy to miss the unstated. I think it's also true that their long-term perception of you can mean they hear what they want to hear rather than what you're actually saying.

    Oh, I'm sure people listen as best they can. The problem is that their best is not necessarily complete and concentrated attention but something rather more erratic.

    I think you're also right that people who call themselves "good listeners" may be deluding themselves and unaware of how much they're missing.

    Yes, we all want to be understood and yes, we're often disappointed. A frustrating fact of life.

    And I totally agree with you about crowded and noisy bars. I avoid them like the plague, there's zero chance of having a proper conversation when you have to keep asking people what they just said.

  12. Bijoux: I loathe and detest that habit as well. The point of a conversation is to converse, not to nurse your technology addiction. It's extremely insulting. If they don't want to converse, why go out with someone in the first place?

  13. Undivided attention. I do offer that. Always.

    And find it irksome in the extreme when others do not afford me the same courtesy.


  14. www: That's quite a skill, one I've never managed to master despite my best efforts. I think some people are just blessed with extraordinary concentration.

  15. What a good post this is. Yes, it's true. It's true that what we all want is to feel that we mean something to other people, and yes, it's true that we are not very good at returning the favour!

    I guess that's why everyone is attracted to anyone who will truly pay them attention and a good listener is always sought out. Me? I used to think I was a good listener, but I'm not sure that I really am. I try.

  16. John: Ah yes, that dishy celebrity chef you just can't keep your eyes off....

    What was that again?

  17. Jay: It's a wonderful feeling, isn't it, when someone is truly paying attention to everything you're saying? So different from that half-hearted interest that's usually the best we can expect.

  18. I'm bad at that - especially with Husband, especially in restaurants where I people watch!

    On the other hand I am so afraid of being boring that I rush through stories and miss out important details and make no sense so everyone thinks I'm ... boring!

  19. Liz: Yes, I have a tendency to people watch as well. I also have a tendency to rush through stories missing out the details. But I'm surprised anyone finds you boring. That's not my experience.

  20. I love that last para
    I do try to listen, mostly, I think/hope I manage it...

  21. Suburbia: My impression is that you're a good listener, but since I've never met you....

    So which part of the last para got your attention? Not liking that glossed-over feeling?