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The Importance of Listening

September 17, 2010

Source: Ro/wererabbit on Flickr

When we talk about something, we just talk about something, just the positive or the negative side, without trying to express some intellectual, one-sided idea. And we listen without trying to figure out some intellectual understanding, without trying ot understand from just a one-sided view. – Shunryu Suzuki

A friend of mine recently wrote a Facebook note in which he mentioned some thoughts on conversations. Specifically, he maintained that it was better to have few conversations, because most people aren’t very good at having conversations. Most people, states my friend, will be quick to follow random tangents in any discussion, never really making any headway on the issue you’d like to discuss. In the end, they are more concerned with their own agenda than participating in the conversation at hand.

Just Listen, Just Talk, Without Bias or Agenda

While I like to give people some credit, I have to agree with my friend. I think most of us go around during the day with specific things we want to talk about and say. If someone had a bad day at work, all they want to talk about is that, and when someone else starts a conversation with them, they just see it as an opportunity to talk about themselves and their problems. If they are at least conscientious enough to be speaking about the topic at hand, their opinions and biases will be influenced by their emotions and their agenda. This is because, for most, their favorite subject of discussion is themselves. Anything that cannot be related to themselves is automatically boring.

In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki tells the reader that the best way to have a conversation is simply to talk and simply to listen, without an end goal in mind. This might seem to deepen the problem of conversations that never get to a point, but really this advice leads to a much better exchange of ideas. According to this philosophy of just listening, you do not bring your own agenda into the conversation. In fact, you spend most of the talk listening to the other person. You invest all your energy in understanding not only the words they are saying, but the true intended meaning behind those words. Thus, you give respect to the other person’s ideas, and ultimately you can get more out of the conversation. Instead of harping on the same old ideas which you keep running over and over in your head, you will get exposed to new ideas. By really listening, you will actually understand and add those new ideas to your worldview.

You Can’t Change Others’ Minds

But what about if you know the person you’re talking to is wrong, and you feel it is your sacred duty to disillusion them of their absurd notions? Shouldn’t you then try to change their mind?

If I am honest with myself, there has never been a time in my life when I changed somebody’s mind or opinion through a heated debate. Telling someone they are wrong, or even just trying to demonstrate that you are right, usually just makes people more defensive. They will come up with arguments that they might not have said before, and the simple act of defending their argument will make them even more adamant that it is true. Most people assume others agree with them, and being exposed to their own point of view often makes people more and more certain of it.

According to Suzuki, a better strategy is to simply let the person argue with themselves. Instead of putting them on the defensive by challenging their ideas, allow them to explain their idea. If there is a problem, by explaining it to you, a good attentive listener, they will find it themselves. If they don’t, nothing you do will change their opinions. A direct challenge always elicits a defensive stance. Simply being interested will get you much further.

Really, the only reason you ought to try to change someone’s opinion anyway if it’s a matter of (immediate) life or death, or some other serious problem. Belief in God, eating habits, political views; all of these things will not cause the world to come crashing down if they are not in accordance with your views.

Being Open to Other Points of View Increases Understanding

The other reason listening intently and sincerely, especially to ideas you don’t agree with, is so that you can better understand the other point of view. No stance is perfectly positive or negative, so it helps to be aware of the good aspects of opposing viewpoints. Being more aware of the failings of your own ideas will also help you be more realistic about your own ideas.

I am a firm believer that most of our world is determined by our perceptions of it. If you believe that things are good, you will find a lot of good things. If you believe that life is hard, life will be hard. So really, everyone’s point of view truly is valid, no matter how different they might be. Only in extreme cases does this become a problem for the continued functioning of society. It pays to know the difference. Of course, the point of view that others’ opinions must be changed to match your own is also valid. It does, however, lead to a much more anxious and distressed way of dealing with people.

Here are some guidelines on good listening you might find interesting and useful.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 11:39 am

    I very much enjoy your writing 🙂
    Peace to you,

    • September 17, 2010 12:23 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. I look forward to sharing ideas.

  2. David permalink
    September 17, 2010 12:07 pm

    managed to get someone to change their mind the other day through debate

    im batting 1/1000000

    • September 17, 2010 12:22 pm

      Nicely done. If anyone could do it it’s you. But you’ll remember that you couldn’t change my mind about being a vegetarian, though some of the ideas we talked about did inform my eventual change. I find setting an example usually does a better job.

  3. Steffi permalink
    October 21, 2010 8:48 pm

    I read Suzuki a year and a half ago for a class, and remember enjoying it. And now I feel rather inclined to go back and reread it.

    And in general, thank you for the continuing line of wonderful, thoughtful posts! I hope you’re doing well in the world, and I look forward to reading more in the future! 🙂

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