12/11/2016 15:22 PM


Dr. Tesfa G. Gebremedhin, West Virginia University

LEARNING TO LISTEN AND LISTENING TO LEARN Listening is perhaps the most important of all interpersonal skills. It is the combination of intelligently giving undivided attention, hearing and understanding what is being communicated, not just what is being said. We need to remember that hearing is not the same as listening. People may hear the words, but if they do no pay attention, then they will not be able to understand the message correctly. Sometimes, it is easy to hear the words without truly listening in order to grasp the real message. We think that we know what is being said, but we need to clarify and double check the accuracy and our certainty of the situation before jumping to unnecessary and irrational conclusions. At times we are deeply preoccupied in our own thought or affair that we fail to pay attention to what other people say. One time, Aboy Manna, a crop farmer, was planting seeds in his field. Adey Fanna was passing by and said, “Aboy Manna, Good Morning to you.” Aboy Manna replied, “I am planting wheat.” Adey Fanna said again, “I just said Good Morning.” He replied again, “Though we do not have rain, we hope that the wheat will germinate.” In this conversation, Aboy Manna did not at all pay attention nor properly responded to what Adey Fanna was saying. The same thing frequently happens with so many of us because we do not give our full attention to listen and understand to what is said by other people. It is so important that we have interpersonal relationship and communicate properly and appropriately with other people who live around us, if we desire to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. It often happens that we take a certain term, or phrase, or even statement out of its real context from what was said and we make our own interpretation or conclusion which can create misunderstanding and confusion. The story below is a typical example that exhibits confusion due to lack of proper listening to what has been said by another person.

A group of ladies in one Eritrean Orthodox Christian church complained about the sermon given by the priest. The complaint started when the priest preached for two consecutive Sundays about the teachings of Prophet Isaiah (Esayas). The ladies collectively selected three from their group to represent them and confront the priest. They made an appointment to talk to the priest after the church service. At the meeting, the three ladies indicated to the priest that they come to church to learn the gospel and to receive spiritual blessings, not necessarily to learn or to listen to any kind of politics. The priest listened to them with full attention and interest. After they finished expressing their complaints, he asked them if they have a Bible and if they read it. They indicated to him that they have the Bible and they read it sometimes. He asked them to turn to the appropriate chapters and verses on prophet Isaiah. He explained to them that he was actually preaching about Prophet Isaiah from the Bible, not politics. The confusion was created because the ladies took the name ‘Esayas’ out of its context and made the wrong interpretation.

Most people, most of the time, take listening for granted; it is something that just happens. It is only when we stop to think about listening and what it entails that we begin to realize that listening is in fact an important interpersonal skill that needs to be nurtured and developed. However, it is commonly observed in our Diasporas society that when another person voices an idea that is different than our own, we usually fail to listen with interest to what is said by the other person, or we often fail to acknowledge that the other person may have some truth in what they are saying. Such situation happens because “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (Stephen Covey). Too often, we forget to listen. Many people in a conversation are not really listening. We are already preparing to respond while somebody is still talking. Listening is requisite for an exchange of ideas. We never learn anything while we are talking. People listen more attentively to those who listen to them. Most people do not seek first to understand because we do not listen with the intent to understand; we usually listen with the intent to reply. We are either speaking or preparing to speak. Consequently, the necessary information will not be conveyed properly in the process of our interpersonal communication. Lack of information will then create misunderstanding and misunderstanding will create conflict. Much of the negative discourse in our conventional interpersonal communication is caused and orchestrated by those people who do not listen and understand what is said by another person. When listening to people with different viewpoints and outlook, we need to put ourselves in their own shoes. Although we may not agree with them, it might help us to better understand their perspective. We have to try to find a common ground; areas in which we all agree, and seek the decency to respect each other’s perspective.

The funny story narrated below shows how misunderstanding and confusion can happen, if we do not communicate our message properly to another person verbally or in writing. The story is about a husband Gurja and a wife Gimja, on a shopping trip that went wrong. Gimja needed some grocery items to make a birthday cake for their ten year-old daughter. Gimja decided to send Gurja to the grocery store to buy them. By coincidence Gurja was on his way to a sports event, but he agreed to do it on one condition. There would be only a few items to buy so that he could go through the express checkout to save time, so he could still be on time for the game. Gimja told him verbally what she wanted him to buy, but, instead he asked her to list the items for him on a piece of paper. Gurja left and Gimja expected him to return home soon. However, time passed by and he was not home, so she began to worry. She picked up her phone and as she was about to call, but she heard him coming in the driveway. He came into the house with three bags, put them down on the kitchen floor and told her that he would be back in with the rest of the bags. Gimja wondered what he was talking about and she started unpacking the bags. She was surprised to see so many bags of grocery items. In the first bag there was one pound of butter, 2 bags of icing sugar and 3 bottles of vanilla. In the second bag there were 4 dozen eggs. In the third bag there were 5 packages of lard and her grocery list. She looked at the list and suddenly realized what had happened. When Gurja asked her to make sure he could go through the express checkout, she made a list by numbering the items one through seven. She quickly put the list away before Gurja came in with the rest of the bags and decided not to say anything at all about the confusion between the numbers and the quantities of items bought. Instead she planned on thanking him for being such a great husband. He brought in several more bags that contained 6 large bags of flour and 7 large cartons of milk. Then he looked at his wife and said, “I obviously didn’t go through the express checkout because there were too much stuff. However, when the cashier was ringing up the last item, I realized what I had done wrong and I just wanted to get out of the store as fast as I can because the people in line behind me were laughing.” Originally, the numbers in the list were meant to identify the list of items, not necessarily to indicate the quantities of items to be bought. Apparently, it was Gurja, not Gimja, who was very much confused in this adventurous episode of miscommunication.

The story clearly indicates that men and women communicate very differently. When women talk they are also listening carefully to what has been said. When men talk, they do not listen very well and will miss a lot of details in the process. In general, women have much better listening skills than men. Most men, unlike women, like to talk, especially about themselves. However, most people, men and women, never listen. That is why many people talk to themselves. One good advantage of talking to themselves is that they know at least somebody is listening. Whether it is a casual interpersonal conversation with friends, or attending a seminar, or talking to somebody on the telephone, there is an underlying trend that we have stopped listening to people who have a different perspective. We are so sure of our rightness that we no longer listen to others. Instead, we are smugly content in our own assumed correctness thinking and believing the same perspective. This intellectual bullying or mere arrogance, especially in men, erodes the sense of connectedness and cooperation in our own Diasporas society. Luckily, it is a blessing that God created women to look after men and harmonize our situations.

Listening is the first rule and initial step of effective interpersonal communication. We usually listen with our ears for meaning, but we also listen with our eyes for behavior and we listen with our hearts for feelings. Learning to listen is a special skill of interpersonal communication. However, it is important to note that listening is not a skill with which we are born. We have to learn how to develop good listening skills, and practice what we learn. There are two choices when it comes to listening. We can listen with positive expectations or we can listen with judgment. How we listen shapes how we think and speak. Listening with judgment is an irrational behavior. Once a judgment is in place, we listen for what we want to hear. If we have judged a person as stupid, we listen for everything about the person that supports this perception. If we have also judged a person as clever, we listen for everything about the person that supports this perception. Thus, learning to listen is a powerful art used to build alliance.

To listen well, we also need to stop talking. It will take patience to let other people talk without interruption or finishing what they have to say. However, listening is well worth the effort. By being genuinely interested in what others have to say, we show them that they are important in the relationship. Listening gives others due respect and validation. To this effect, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another person has to say” (Bryant McGill). The quality of our relationship with other people depends on our ability to listen well. In reflecting the importance of listening, we are created with two ears and one mouth for a good reason. If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have been created with two mouths and one ear.

To become better and more skilled listeners we are expected to listen twice before we speak once. In doing so, we can improve our relationships with each other, we can have a better understanding of each other, and we can reduce any undesirable misunderstanding and confusion among ourselves. For this reason, effective listening is very often the foundation of strong relationships with other people. Without the ability to listen effectively, communication with other people, particularly with our own children, can easily breaks down. Though our children never listen to us, we need to make efforts to inspire them to stop, listen and build a more positive attitude and develop a better perspective. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our family members and others with whom we interact. By improving our listening skills, we can be a better parent, spouse, pastor, teacher, friend, leader or follower. People naturally gravitate towards us, and appreciate us, if we listen to them with respect, empathy, and positive attitude. It is our responsibility to work on improving our listening skills. It may take time and effort, but the rewards will be worth it. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” In general, effective listening is one of the most important skills a strong leader can have, and it is the one that our young generation need to develop. Most of the successful people are the ones who do more listening than talking. It is evident that the less we speak, the more we listen and understand each other. Our mouths can put us in trouble for talking rubbish, but our ears will never get us in trouble even for listening to gibberish. As the Turkish proverb says, “If speaking is silver, listening is gold.” Clearly, listening is an important skill that we can all benefit from improving. By becoming a better listener, we can improve the quality of our interpersonal relationships and develop the ability to avoid any unnecessary conflict among ourselves.

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