Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reading is to writing as listening is to . . .

  Tom Platt/Iconica for Getty Images
Teachers (and parents) tell their kids that one of the best ways to improve their writing is to read more. I was reminded of this last week when my social media filled with posts detailing friends' plans to participate in Read Across America Day.

In a very similar way, we can learn about speaking by listening. The most recent TED Radio Hour on NPR featured an interview with Julian Treasure, a sound expert who says we are "losing our listening." As someone who preaches that you can't be a good speaker unless you are a better listener, I was intrigued enough by his interview with host Guy Raz to watch Treasure's original TED Talk. In it, he describes the ways we have trained our ears for listening: how we recognize our names amid the din of a noisy party, for example, or tune out continuous "background" sound. But, he adds, our listening is also affected by many filters we subconsciously impose on what we hear: culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, intentions.

All in all, listening is a tricky business. And we need to practice doing it more mindfully. Fortunately, Treasure shares some clever exercises for improving our listening--indeed, the title of his TED talk is "5 Ways to Listen Better." He ends by making a plea for teaching listening to children. Because unless we collectively break this habit of shutting out sound, we are headed toward a totally dysfunctional, disconnected future where we block out the incessant, exhausting noise of everyday life by isolating ourselves under headphones. We need to learn how to listen, because listening is essential to human connection. "Conscious listening always creates understanding," Treasure observes.

Likewise, if we want to be understood when we speak, we must become better listeners first. We need to reconnect with each other in conversation--and stop performing dueling monologues. I often advise my clients that one way to improve as public speakers (i.e., when they engage in any speech not specifically "private") is to become better public listeners. This means being less impatient as listeners, exercising critical thinking skills, and not responding reflexively to contextual filters (see above). Then they can achieve a far better connection with the speaker and her/his message. And learn how to recreate that same connection when they are speaking. Only in that mental space is the act of true communication possible.

"Every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully. Connected in space and in time to the physical world around us. Connected to each other." Treasure is right. And why would we want to live any other way?

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