On Listening


An edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age.

My girlfriend didn’t believe me. “Did you really say that to your students?” she asked incredulously. “They’re first years in their first week!” It’s true. I had sounded like a dark and over-ripe Mr. Chips.

Earlier that day I’d held my first class in politics and communications. I thought some heavy advice was in order. “You’re born in a cage,” I started ominously, “and you’ll stay in it because there’ll always be a gap between your experiences and the words you have to describe them. More, you’ll only ever be able to occupy one skull—you’ll never completely know what it’s like to think or feel like somebody else.”

Suddenly there were a lot of fresh but troubled faces turned towards me and I had a crisis of confidence. Perhaps this monologue was best reserved for those scotch-fuelled 3.00am sessions with friends and nicotine. But I had to continue, I’d already begun. “But, you can enlarge that cage by developing ways to communicate and your confidence to do so. That starts with expanding your vocabulary. The strength—and intimacy—of your relationships in life will largely depend upon your ability to express yourself warmly and precisely.”

In truth, I was just paraphrasing my tutor from my first class nearly 15 years prior. His words had stuck. But I failed to mention the heartbreaking coda: that it might not matter terribly, because few of us listen anyway.

I’d thought sloppily about this for a while, until the melancholy wisdom of former columnist Mark Dapin appeared in a piece this week and brought my musings into relief. Dapin realised that writing a column brought its fair share of abuse—that’s par for the course—but there was something deeper, sadder and disorienting lurking within this enmity. A relentless pattern of reflexive misunderstanding.

For any one of us, not least the vain writer, the fear of being misunderstood induces anxiety. But it happens everyday, inevitably. Confusion, inarticulacy and self-absorption forever conspire to render our gestures, speech and, yes, newspaper columns, unrecognisable upon reception. And clear and precise communication is no safe-guard.

We rightly celebrate our bustling marketplace of opinion. But behind its clamour are grubby and calcified prejudice, pettiness, entitlement, suspicion, hostility and frustration. This—and not reason—are the principal constituents of our political discussions. This is what we are. And it means we squander some of the blessedness of our democracy because we do not truly engage.

I’m happy for people to disagree with me, as I’m sure Mark Dapin is. But to disagree with someone you need to have engaged them. To have engaged them, you need to have listened. And to have listened you need to have made a difficult, conscious decision to be aware of all of the calcified selfishness and suspicion and frustration that colours what you see and hear. And then you need to ask yourself: what’s being said here? What’s this really about?

In my experience, this rarely happens. It’s a disturbing moment when you realise that it doesn’t matter what you write and how clearly you write it, people will refract it a thousand different ways. Perhaps the author is dead.

I wrote a piece about the callousness of my moral superiority as an under-grad—it was a piece about growing up, essentially—and was called a neo-fascist and war monger. I wrote a piece about the psychological and emotional reasons behind our politics—that it is not always the pretty outcome of reason—and was called an apologist for John Howard. I wrote a piece arguing for greater respect and sobriety in our discussions and received rabid comments in response.

You get the point. I’m not bothered about the abuse—it stirs me, actually—but I’m disheartened by the fact that the responses rarely demonstrate any connection to what I’ve written. Readers are constantly betraying deep flaws of comprehension, as they respond not to what I’ve written, but what they wished I had written that would properly excite their gall. It’s dull and pathetic— columnists have become the avatars for all of their readers’ grievances.

I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m asking that you begin to think about how well you listen, because if you can’t do this, you’re in a bad place. It’s chastening to think of our great marketplace of ideas as a lame tragicomedy of people talking over each other in breathless cycles of misunderstanding. And, yes, I include myself in this analysis.

Perhaps we are hardwired to misunderstand each other—as the late David Foster Wallace wrote, each of us are “the realest, most vivid and important person in existence”—but we’re also built with the self-awareness to try to correct it. Before you cut off your friend, or post a comment here, meditate on your own baggage and self-centredness and how it might distance you from the beating hearts all around you.


10 Responses to On Listening

  1. rrs says:

    So, vocabulary is a means of expressing yourself (accurately), but this may be undermined by a lack of listening. Ok, my logic here is reducing your piece down (just a bit), however…

    The listener will require an equal grasp of vocabulary, otherwise you are treading near to a colorful solipsism. Don’t misunderstand me – I love your words and how they appear from your cursor on to my screen. But understanding must transcend vocabulary before then vocabulary of understanding is built.

    • Marty says:

      Good point, mate. I think I may have placed too strong an onus on language/vocab (though I obviously think it’s very important)–warmth or understanding can be communicated (sometimes more powerfully) through a kiss, a smile, a song, etc. There are many ways of building those bridges. Or at least attempting to.


  2. Andrew says:

    In his recent book, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker argues that the sudden rise of literacy, and consequently of the reading of literature in Early Moden Europe, was one of a number of key events responsible for radically driving down the rate of violence, both criminal and state sponsored, in our society. We no longer enjoy public hangings, for example; nor slavery. His favoured hypothesis for this particular change is that the act of reading, and specifically of imaginatively engaging with the idea of being another human being through a work of fiction, may enhance our cognitive capacities for empathy.

    It is an interesting theory, and intruiging to think that the cultivation of the ability to listen and to reflect may be have been even more important in our history than we realise.

    • Marty says:

      Hey mate,

      It’s an interesting theory. I’ve heard arguments that novels can increase empathy or, at least, sympathy. Given that sympathy is really an act of imagination, it makes some sense to me. But I do wonder if the theory’s a little too cute. Here’s an interesting article from the Boston Globe and another from Laura Miller at Salon (and perhaps I should say “discoveries” rather than “theories”)


      • Andrew says:

        Yep, these articles run the same sort of cognitive science argument that Pinker (unsurprisingly, being a cognitive scientist) mounts at that point in the book. Though he has amassed a good set of historical data showing surprisingly strong statistical correlations between an explosion in book publishing and a sudden dip in various forms of violence at that time, he proposes a few other theories first, then dismisses them, and finally doesn’t seem entirely satisfied, but it willing to plough ahead.

        Given our limited understanding of cognition, it is not unlike being a Victorian scientist and noticing that the streets of 19th C London have a lot of untreated sewage and garbage in them, and concluding that smells spread disease.

        Anyway, I think that’s far enough off topic for me…

  3. Alex White says:

    Surely a good communicator doesn’t blame his (or her) audience for failing to understand what was said.

    • Marty says:

      I think this is a little glib. No doubt there’ll be times when the speaker’s at fault, other times when that won’t be the case, and other times again when there’s a knotty confluence of factors encouraging misunderstanding. Here’s Lionel Shriver, quoted by Mark Dapin in his Meanjin piece: “the unremitting revelation that so many readers cannot comprehend standard prose—that so many people prefer to make up what they wish you had written so they can object to it; that, not to put too fine a point on it, readers cannot read—[which] exposes the whole business of writing comment pieces as utterly pointless.”

  4. Alex White says:

    Maybe glib, but in politics, it is futility to blame the audience for not understanding. Far easier to try to improve your own communication than change the audience.

    • Marty says:

      Yeah, I’d say you’re right. And there’s no shortage of failed comms in Canberra these days.


      • Jack G Jessen says:

        A short time ago I was advised by the department comms professional to couch my message in language that is comprehensible to eight year olds. My audience for what I was to convey were adults employed by the Commonwealth…..

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