Incentive To Listen

Pay attention the next time there is a crisis.  Try to identify the elements of cause and effect.  Regardless of whether the crisis is interpersonal or international in scope, odds are good that broken communication gave crisis the opportunity.  Effective communication requires effective listening; the cause of most broken communication is ineffective listening.  Why are we such poor listeners?  Few people actually know how to listen effectively because few people learn how.  While teachers and parents may tell students to listen, they do not teach them how.  A directive to “LISTEN!” is no more instructive than an order given to “READ!”   The reason that schools do not teach effective listening skills is, perhaps, not immediately obvious.  Consider, though, that where there is a deficit of interest and poor performance there is often a lack of incentive.  Where is the incentive to listen?  Where are the role models of excellent listeners? Everyone, it seems, has something to say.  Too many have more than a mouth-full.  But where are cultural icons who make listening so sexy and cool that teenagers dream of becoming the ‘most awesome listener’ on the block?   Until we as a society recalibrate our value system to prioritize listening with quantifiable incentive, we will continue on the path of a civilization in decline.

Effective listening is listening with purpose.  Purpose provides incentive.  Without the incentive of purpose people listen just enough to get by.  They hear the sound of someone blaring a horn in traffic.  The wail of a siren piercing the air will command their attention.  These sounds demand immediate action to avoid adverse consequences.  But is anyone really listening to the world around us?  In our conversations, we tend to hear the reply of own voice inside our own head before the other person has finished speaking.  How can we possibly be listening?  We catch key phrases and the last few words a person says, so that when they ask “are you listening to me?” – we can pass the test.  We tune out the world around us and we tune out each other.  In the constant din of a noisy world, when the assault of information meant only to prompt purchase and consumption is pervasive, we barely listen to ourselves.

When this author was a young man, foolishness was my tour guide into some pretty tight spots.  One such predicament features a very angry, very drunk man putting a gun to my head.

The steel barrel pressed hard against my forehead leaves an impression.  I can say without a doubt,  from that experience, that when someone puts a gun to my head and says “listen very carefully,”  I am all ears.  Be assured, you have my rapt attention.

For most people such a situation will prove powerful incentive to listen. When something important is at stake, people find purpose.  Raise the stakes and people listen.

The fundamental difference between ourselves and the animal kingdom is the capacity for language.  There is tremendous focus on teaching human offspring to talk.  Without that high level of prioritization,  we would not possess our fluent command of language.  Literacy was the exception until elementary and secondary school became institutionalized and required by law.  Every student must now demonstrate a certain level of standardized achievement.  Failure to do so means the failure to pass on to the next grade.  What could be more catastrophic to a child’s fragile sense of self than being singled out from their peers and held back.  That is enormous incentive for even the most indifferent student to make the grade.  For that reason, most students do pass and move on with their classmates.

Let’s make learning to listen an academic priority beginning with early childhood education.  We need leaders with the vision and the political will to demand a fundamental change in the academic objectives of our nation and require that our students develop listening skills on par with their ability to read, write and speak.   To re-frame listening as part of basic literacy is a tangible first step toward returning America’s educational system and the nation’s industry to a place of preeminence, leading the world into a sustainable future.  With national unity under duress,  a future in-which people know how to listen effectively and with real purpose is a goal which transcends our irreconcilable political and cultural ideologies.  If the incentive to listen was murky and vague before, it is articulate and precise now.  Listen like there is gun at your head. Everything is at stake.

  1. t’s such a tickety-boo site. imaginary, very stimulating!!!


    Opony Mozgowe


    • Isabella Stephanie Elaine Maxwell
    • September 11th, 2010

    Active listening not only requires use of our perception, but also use of our understanding. I believe that we tend (as a society) to have a lack of common empathy toward one another. This, in turn, affects the “listening” process. When we listen, we are making a conscious effort to pay attention (e.g., hearing versus listening).

    We all hear, but do we all listen? Excellent reading material as always:)

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