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Editorial: Hearing Aids; Fostering the Art of Listening

In an age when talk is cheap and far too plentiful, it is beyond refreshing to learn that there is an organization devoted to the almost lost art of listening.

Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, the International Listening Association gathered recently in Montreal for its annual convention. This constitutes our idea of business bliss: attending a conference where people know how to shut up and listen.

The reality, as related by the Journal, was somewhat different and a little disappointing. As it turns out, “We have good listeners, but we have a lot of good talkers, too,” according to the association’s executive director.

Among the latter is Manny Steil, a consultant who instructs business executives in how to better absorb what they hear. According to the Journal, a simple question is apt to elicit a 20-minute monologue from him. Steil himself acknowledges that listening is “a tough business to be in when you’re a talker.”

Nonetheless, listening is serious business for the association’s 300 members, who include both social scientists who study how people actually listen and members of professions who want to communicate more effectively with their clients.

For instance, one of the panel discussions had as its topic the question “What Is Listening?” The answer, according to one professor on the panel, is that listening is the act of opening oneself to being moved or changed by another person.

That is certainly one way to look at it. For our part, we’d settle for our physician looking up from her laptop occasionally while recording our evasive answers to her questions during our annual physical; for our colleagues not blatantly checking their text messages during meetings; for the dog not treating our commands as negotiating points; for the kids refraining from letting their eyes glaze over when we are relating an anecdote to make a salient point about their future conduct, even if they have heard said anecdote a couple of times before.

Most of all, though, we would like to promote sound listening habits as a way to cut down on the tide of communication, both oral and digital, that is rapidly approaching flood stage. After all, listening carefully largely precludes talking at the same time, even for adept multi-taskers. And who doubts that the world would be a better place with a 30 percent reduction in chatter, including our own?

In 1993, a groundbreaking book was published on the use of antidepressants called Listening to Prozac. The New Yorker followed with a parody titled Listening to Bourbon. We have listened to both, and vastly prefer the latter. Best of all, though, is listening to yourself. It’s astonishing what good advice your inner voice provides if you take the time to listen and pay attention.

The next time you’re on a long road trip by yourself, shut off the car radio, turn off the digital devices and listen to, in the words of one conference speaker, “your personal GPS.” It’s a great way to find your way home.