The Lost Art Of Listening And Comprehension

Every job description requires effective communication skills with a focus on how you communicate to others. You know what they don’t specifically request?

Good listening and comprehension skills. This is odd to me as communication has no use without someone able to receive and understand the information.

Ours is a nation of people who know all too well how to express an opinion but fail miserably at listening to others. Analytical and comprehension skills are not valued at all. Facts are minor details that get in the way of how we feel.

Listening and understanding has truly become a lost art.

My degree is in English and I had enough history credits to amount to a minor. My entire college career centered on core skills – research, reading, analysis and writing.

Reading and regurgitation was not an option. Comprehension was key. No one cared how I felt.

One professor liked to give us a research problem and dump us at the library to solve it in two hours or less. This was in the early days of the internet in colleges but computers were off limits in this class and there were no smart phones. We had to figure it out with books and microfilm and our own wit.

I recall one assignment involving the above painting. Now I know that it’s Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

The professor handed us an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper with this image on it and said “figure out what this is, where it came from, what it means and why I want you to know about it. By the end of class.”

I really hated that class but it gave me mad research skills.

My short years working for a newspaper taught me other skills. I learned that listening isn’t just about hearing what someone says. It’s just as important to notice what they don’t say.

It’s also important to realize that the person in front of you has a side of the story. But so does the person next to them and the person next to them. We like to say there are two sides to every story but few situations in this world are so cut and dry.

The true test is if you are willing to seek out and listen to those different sides or if you’re only interested in the one that supports your own notions.

If you fail at this test, you’re more likely to be dismissive of people who do not support your own world view.

Watching news unfold in the age of the internet is both fascinating and frustrating, especially when the news is so complex as it has been lately.

For example, the events at the Capitol building on January 6 didn’t look so horrific when the footage was captured from a safe distance outside. I’m guessing a lot of people thought it didn’t look so bad from that perspective as it was reported on live tv that afternoon.

The footage from inside the building, captured by the media and criminals alike, shows a completely different event. Take a 10,000 foot view of the days surrounding that event and it is framed in a completely different way than originally reported because new and terrifying information becomes available each day.

The ability to keep up with unfolding news and to fit different perspectives in with the original narrative is a skill we all need but few seem to possess.

I sometimes struggle to form quick opinions about complex situations because I want as much accurate information as possible. Yet I have witnessed people form complete opinions based on a headline or the first few lines of a single story.

This clearly is not a world where I fit in or belong. Nor do I wish to.

What’s the answer? I do not know but suspect it’s far more complex that any of us would expect. I’ll have to research it and get back with you.

14 thoughts on “The Lost Art Of Listening And Comprehension

  1. I once heard a journalist say, “If your mother says she loves you, doubt it until you have three corroborating sources.”

    It’s a shame how we don’t teach critical thinking anymore. It was tried in public school when I was in it in the 70s and 80s, but my kids didn’t learn it there.

  2. I read somewhere recently (true? I don’t know but suspect so) that critical thinking was purged from curriculum in Texas. TV news is probably the worst source you can rely on. Social media about as bad. Nothing is clear the day of an event. It only comes together after many people have examined it from many sides. Even then, the picture is incomplete. And as you point out, rarely black and white, as so many people seem to prefer.

    Last fall I signed up for MasterClass. I am definitely hoping to become a better listener as well as writer. Chris Voss (an expert hostage negotiator) is teaching a class I’m doing now. Even David Sedalia emphasizes the need to be a good listener (and ask good questions). I have much to learn, but I stick with it.

    • Oh, that sounds like a fascinating class! I’m so glad you’re doing that. Perhaps you can share some of what you learn in a post someday.

      Honestly, Texas purging it from the curriculum would impact the rest of the nation. Did you know that Texas orders more textbooks than any other state? Textbook companies write the books to satisfy Texas curriculum and the rest of the states either go along or pay through the nose to have their own unique versions made. Incidentally, this is largely how the nation embraced the south’s version of the Civil War and the Lost Cause became the national standard that has stuck us with monuments to men who should have been tried as traitors.

      And Eilene, we all have much to learn but it’s the quest to do so that keeps some of us getting out of bed in the morning! It’s when we think there’s nothing left to learn that we know we have failed. 🙂

      • I heartily agree with your closing statement. I wasn’t aware that Texas had such an outsized influence on the textbook biz. That’s a shame. I recall my friend from St. Louis telling me that the Civil War was about “states’ rights .” I wanted to retort, “Exactly – states’ rights to preserve slavery.” Wouldn’t have made a dent, so I didn’t.

        Another MasterClass I took was by Ken Burns (excellent!), and he had the perfect rejoinder. I’ll need to go back and write it down if I haven’t already.

      • Yeah, I was shocked the first time I heard that about Texas but my original source was an NPR story and then one of the big newspapers did something- Washington Post, maybe? Not sure. At any rate, I don’t like it.

        And no, you would be wasting your breath to argue. Most people around here will go to their grave defending that idea as well as the thought that slavery wasn’t so bad and tearing down monuments is erasing history. I don’t have the energy or time to go tilting at that particular windmill so I just keep my thoughts to myself.

      • Yes! I believe you did too! That was sometime last summer, correct? I have one simmering in the back of my mind but I haven’t pulled the trigger.

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