A story is told about a reporter who was visiting the monkey house in New York’s Bronx Zoo, in the United States. As he stood there in front of the monkey house, listening to the ceaseless yapping of the monkeys, a strange feeling of déjà vu swept over him. He recalled a cocktail party he had attended the previous week. He saw in his mind’s eye the crowded room and the full‑speed, full‑volume chatter with nobody really saying anything, and nobody really listening. “We miss so much,” he thought as he walked away from the monkey house.
Conversational give‑and‑take can be among the most enjoyable and rewarding of mental activities. Like serious study, it informs. Like travel, it broadens. Like friendship, it nourishes the soul. However, it calls for a willingness to alternate the role of speaker with that of listener, and it calls for “digestive pauses” by both!
A major reason why some relationships break down could be that one or more of the parties involved hasn’t learned to listen! Listening is a learned skill, and when we develop it to the fullest, we increase not only our capacity to learn but also our ability to maintain healthy relationships. A true conversation is an opportunity to learn something about one another from one another.
There are two kinds of listening—active and passive. Most of us are good at passive listening. We appear to be listening when, in fact, our minds may have wandered off to the movie we saw last night or what we are going to wear tomorrow. Our attention can drift from a speaker during a lecture, or a sermon, or while watching a television show, and even when we’re with close friends and family members.
Active listening can be difficult because it requires staying focused on what the speaker is saying. It depends on using our ears the way a photographer uses a camera. To get the best pictures, the photographer must adjust the lens until the settings are correct. As active listeners, we must adjust the focus of our attention to remain aware of what the speaker is telling us. The more we listen and learn, the better able we are to develop the potential we possess.
A presentation by the Sperry Corporation in the United States on effective listening quotes studies showing that students spend sixty to seventy percent of classroom time listening. In business, listening is cited as one of the most important skills a manager can possess. Sadly, most of us are ineffective listeners. We allow our minds hardly any opportunity for the essential process of assimilating what has come in and organizing what is to go out in response. In many of today’s ping‑pong conversations, you rarely find an interval between the cessation of one person’s talking and the clamor of a “listener” to get his paddle in!
Have you ever played the childhood game “Gossip,” in which people sit in a circle and someone whispers a story into the ear of the person next to him? That person turns and whispers the story to the next person, and so on until everyone in the circle has heard and retold the story. When the last person tells the story, it is usually so far removed from the original that it bears no resemblance to it. This is the result of poor listening.
The value of listening has been emphasized through the ages. Amen‑em‑Opet, an Egyptian scribe (ca. 1200 b.c.e.) said, “Give your ears, hear what is said. At a time when there is a whirlwind of words, they will be a mooring‑stake for your tongue.” And Ben Sira, a Hebrew scholar of the second century b.c.e., commented, “If you love to hear, you will receive, and if you listen, you will be wise.”
It takes practice and concentration, but we can become better listeners, and better listeners are better learners. God gave us not only two ears and one mouth, but also the potential to learn. The more we listen and learn, the better we may be able to realize the God‑given potential that each of us possesses.