“We have two ears and one tongue, to listen twice as much as we speak.” This African proverb certainly sounds nice, but does it hold true in our society today? In his article, “The Art of Listening,” Henning Mankell writes that while listening is a guiding principle for African culture, it is an idea that has been lost in the chatter of the Western world. Mankell writes that in the Western world, people seem largely to have lost the time and desire to listen to one another speak. It’s as if our instant culture is propagating an attitude of “talk talk talk”, while putting listening on the back burner. Becoming aware of this lack of listening is important, and I believe that we should start actively pursuing listening. We should seek out opportunities to hear other voices, and to share in other people’s stories instead of always telling our own. As for the proverb, while it is a nice sentiment and a great truth, it is not a very accurate reflection of our modern culture.
I feel that like Mankell, I am often pushed to respond more quickly than I would like, and as a result I frequently begin a sentence before I know what I am saying. I believe that many people start talking before they have something to say, and most will finish talking without having said anything. When we talk without anything to say, we fill our time with banal chat and don’t reach a place of authentic relationship building, a place where we can be comfortable being vulnerable with each other. We can’t reach a meaningful relationship without an abundance of listening. Often listening, more than anything else we do for others, makes people feel comfortable. Listening involves empathy, understanding, and compassion, and if we are hearing people without listening we aren’t understanding each other.
In the same way, when we don’t have anything to say we add words to avoid silence. I do not find silence to be particularly uncomfortable, and I actually prefer silence to meaningless chatter, or “filler”, which we often use in everyday conversation to prevent uncomfortable silence. While I understand the compulsion to avoid uncomfortable pauses, we do not need to add unnecessary words to prevent them. When we fill conversation with casual unnecessaries; “like,” “um,” “so,” etc., we are trivializing conversation, and belittling the importance of our words.
Do you feel comfortable with silence? Do you feel understood and heard when you speak? Do you hear others when they speak? If not, what are you doing wrong? Listening is an essential part of human interaction and communication, and without it we are lost. We need to be more aware of when we speak and when we listen; we should speak when words are needed, and we should share in a comfortable silence when they are not. As Mankell says, we should listen to each other, “twice as much as we speak.” We should strive to make a cultural change; to become better listeners.