Listening to each other

In the distant past people would sit around a fire and listen intently to the person telling a long story.

Writing hadn’t been invented yet but language had. People enjoyed listening to stories that could be fictitious or some recollection about a hunt or a journey to explore new worlds (probably just up the road by modern standards!).

People loved the mythologies that was a collective invention by the group or tribe and would embellish stories that could be passed on from one generation to the next. These stories fed the imaginations but also served as a kind of glue that allowed a group to create a common culture. They  defined morality and created the heroes that represented  the standards and ambitions of the group.

I remember my father once gave me a beautiful book about “cavemen” that had a superb illustration of a raging fire with men sitting around it with awed looks on their faces as the Shaman or Chief told his tale.

The thing that was also obvious from the picture was that everyone around the circle was listening intently. Every word would be heard and they would be able to later recall much of the story to their friends and family who were not present.

The ability to listen was a key skill in passing on stories and all the attendant social, political and moral attitudes that defined the group. Listening was not something that just developed. It would have been honed from childhood by parents and carers talking to children and “educating” them into the groups ways.

It seems to me that the key skill of listening carefully to others has declined appreciably in our modern society. This stems in so many ways from early childhood where parents seem less and less to read or tell stories to their offspring. Nowadays many children watch the television or play video games until they are told to switch off and go to bed.

As a teacher for many years I noticed how “listening skills” were often lacking. Children could not follow instructions, they missed key points of explanation and would even have problems in listening to each other in small groups or paired work.

In the wider society we seem to have the same problem. I often listen to “Question Time” on Radio 5 on a Thursday evening. The questions are asked and the panel seems to have their own opinions based on their political positions (right, left or centre) but very rarely do you have a panellist agreeing to something that someone has just said. It often turns into a collection of political statements reflecting personal prejudices.

I thought of this today when I read a Facebook entry by an American cousin who is a doctor. He was asked to attend a meeting in Washington D.C. of physicians from across the country to discuss the forthcoming Republican Bill to change/reform the Obama Healthcare Act.

My cousin is a registered Democrat who has no love of the current President. He stated though that he had read the bill carefully and that there were parts of it that actually corrected some of the parts of the Obama Act that made good sense to him.

He stated that it was important to read, to discuss and most importantly to listen to arguments from both the Republicans and the Democrats and to be prepared to compromise, change what needed to changed and leave what makes sense.

Unfortunately his words are likely to be drowned in the sound of biased political rhetoric that constitutes political discussion both sides of the Atlantic these days.

We desperately need to learn again the ancient skills of our forebears, to listen intently and discuss from what has been said rather than from our entrenched positions.

Haim Ginott, the Israeli Philosopher and Teacher once said that in a classroom discussion the person who speaks next should have to explain the last speaker’s points before they spoke. This is to prove one thing, that they were listening! I think maybe panellists on Question Time, Members of the U.S. Congress and indeed all of us, might have far better discussions and maybe meeting of minds if they did the same!

We desperately need to relearn how to really listen to each other.



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