TW Viewpoint | Are You a Good Listener?

December 5, 2018 | Gary Molnar

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Do you want to increase your knowledge? Do you want to make friends? Do you want people to appreciate, trust, and respect you? If so you can start by listening.

Several years ago I traveled with a small tour group to Kenya. We were staying at a resort facility not far from Mombasa. Early in the trip, a member of our group shared her anger and frustration over the rudeness of the resort staff. She was visibly upset and shaking as she related how the staff made inappropriate and unkind comments about her weight. They had even invented a nickname for her. Whenever she encountered the resort staff they would call her "Jumbo Mama" - sometimes even shouting it from across the hall or courtyard. "I may be a large woman", she told us, "but I ain't nobody's Jumbo Mama!" That the staff smiled and appeared friendly while insulting her made it all the worse. Fortunately for her, she vented her anger with a group of fellow North Americans instead of at the resort staff - it saved her from an embarrassing situation. "Jambo" is a Swahili greeting similar to our "hello"; "Mama" is a term of respect. The staff at the resort called all their male guests "Papa" and their female guests "Mama". These words are used the same way we would use "sir" or "ma'am". What was taken to be a terrible insult was intended as a very polite, respectful, and friendly greeting.

The process by which humans communicate verbally is amazingly complex, and misunderstandings are often the result of a breakdown somewhere along that process. We receive a spoken message through our ears, process that message within our brains, decipher the meaning, and then provide an appropriate response. Anywhere along this process, communication can break down.

Our ears have been designed to perceive wide frequencies of sound. They are incredible marvels of engineering. The smallest, most delicate, bones in our bodies are located in our ears.

Hearing is only one part of the communication process. We may hear many sounds through our ears but we don't necessarily listen to them all. Listening requires us to tune into a message, to concentrate and focus our attention. Once we have heard, and even during hearing, we process the message in our brain. We separate the sounds into words and images that have meaning to us based upon our unique personal experience composed of such things as language, cultural, and educational background. These experiences then act as a filter, allowing us to decipher the incoming message.

If our filters do not adequately match those of the person we are listening to, or we do not put in the effort to listen with empathy, there is a high probability communication will break down. For listening to be successful we must navigate through the potential obstacles to decipher the message as intended by the sender.

As my fellow traveler to Kenya discovered, listening involves more than hearing and processing a message. It is hearing with the purpose of understanding the message as intended by the sender. Are you a good listener?

I'm Gary Molnar for Tomorrow's World Viewpoint.

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