Let’s hear it for better listening

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”
—Oliver Wendell Holmes

Well said, Dr. Holmes. In other words, God gave us one mouth and two ears.

Trouble is, with the cacophony that surrounds us, with iPhones and iPads clamoring for our attention, listening is in danger of becoming a lost art. And yet, according to Mortimer Adler, author of “How To Speak, How To Listen,” listening occupies 45 percent of our communications while speaking accounts for only 30 percent. The other 25 percent comes from writing and reading.

The key to effective listening is empathy. Let the speaker speak. Try to overlook his mannerisms, choice of words, or rambling delivery. Not everyone speaks in clear paragraphs and sentences; but don’t be too harsh on the long-winded — the people that Benjamin Disraeli said when they speak of the steam engine, they always trace it back to the teakettle. Listening requires penetrating through the words to the thoughts that lie behind them and for sifting what’s important from what isn’t.

Be present. Focus on the speaker. Don’t let your mind wander. Give them your time and attention and avoid the temptation to pounce — thinking of what you’re going to say as opposed to what they have said. But it’s useful to interrupt the speaker occasionally by saying ‘Really’ or ‘How interesting’.

It’s in the doctor-patient relationship that listening assumes huge importance — sometimes life or death importance. The Annals of Internal Medicine reports that patients speak for an average of only 12 seconds before the physician interrupts them. If doctors don’t listen, they might make a wrong diagnosis or order the wrong tests. It’s important, too, that patients listen actively to what doctors are telling them. Repeat back what you heard to be sure you understand what was said. Under pressure of time or fear, it’s easy to misconstrue the diagnosis or proposed regimen.

An all-time champion in the listening stakes was Britain’s Queen Mother, who had the admirable gift of being able to make anyone she was with feel as though they were the most important person in the world. Countless years of listening sympathetically, earnestly and attentively to even the most dreadful of bores is the ability she learned and honed over her decades-long public service. She understood that listening is key to all effective communication.

Let’s hear it for better listening skills.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.