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Listening: A waning faculty

Huzaima Bukhari

“Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening―Emma Thompson

Harper Lee in the novel “To Kill a Mocking Bird” says: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for” but in very few cases do they actually listen to what others are saying. From the heated discourses on media platforms to political debates, from the classroom discussions to arguments on the roads, from the courtroom proceedings to the closed circuit homes, everywhere there are words being mouthed by one and all but the availability of keen listeners willing to absorb another’s viewpoint, is rare. The sound of words is like multiple orchestras playing different tunes simultaneously and the noise that erupts is not only deafening, it even locks the faculty of thinking in the brain.

The perfect listening time of a human being’s life is one spent in a mother’s lap as a newborn. Lacking the ability to speak or move, a child merely listens and soaks in the words, the advice, the training, the loving reprimands and until then, there does not appear an iota of disagreement because the traffic of words is one way. These serene moments are short-lived and as the child picks up language, is able to move around at will, disputes begin to emerge with the mother becoming the first controversial person in one’s life. Unknowingly, she takes the form of a demon, when she stops her children from obstinacy regarding behavior, food, recreation, friends, studies and what not. Since the children are not inclined to listen, they repent later in lives but those who do, earn rewards later in life because they understand the sincerity hidden in this harshness.

At the level of the universities where students and teachers are mature enough to have developed a particular mind-set, the art of listening needs to be honed all the more. Coming from peculiar backgrounds, it becomes very difficult to listen to things that may be in direct conflict with one’s own school of thought. Jimi Hendrix aptly said: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens” and perhaps educational institutions are the places where this quote best applies because as Robert Frost puts it: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

It takes tremendous courage to speak on highly controversial issues, especially pertaining to beliefs, religion, political leanings, social matters etc. but it takes even more courage to listen to ideas that are in complete defiance and poles apart from what we believe. This can happen only in civilised institutions and not those which are influenced by a specific ideology otherwise we would not have gruesome incidents like the lynching and killing of Mashal Khan in 2017 by the students and staff of Abdul Wali Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There are many examples of students clashing with their teachers and fellow colleagues just because they lack the capacity to listen to opposing ideas. Roy T. Bennet’s advice to people who react without thinking: “Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words”. If we do understand and follow these words of guidance, there would hardly remain any reason to fight with each other.

Our good friend and writer of many op-eds, Mr. Jamil Mogul has developed his unique strategy abbreviated as TLCD with respect to romantic and professional life that makes sense and appeals to a sane mind. For the former, TLCD stands for Trust, Love, Care and Desire whereas for success in the professional realm it means Think, Listen, Create and Do. Expanding upon this idea, one would say that where many start blindly imitating others in the hope of achieving similar success without using their own minds, chances are that they may end up losing whatever little they have. Those who reach watermarks of achievement are usually adorned with the ability to ponder, to listen to their employees of whichever class, create new visions and roll in the wheels of action to accomplish their goals because as Carlos Ruiz Zafon says: “Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen”. Of course, this does not imply that all who speak or love to speak are fools but wisdom entails both sensible speech and the art of listening.

Many of our respected politician-cum-leaders and our knowledgeable fraternity can learn a lot from paying attention to and listening keenly to comments and criticisms showering down from all nooks and crannies. Whether it is the print media or the electronic media, there is an unstoppable barrage of appraisements regarding their acts that require attention and which need to be redressed immediately yet it seems that all addressees are absolutely hard of hearing as all reviews and pleas of the people seem to be falling on deaf ears. While the common man is reeling with problems of daily life with lack of basic amenities as gas, electricity, drinking water and back-breaking inflation, those at the helm of affairs continue to engage in self-applause and attacking their political opponents. This shows and proves what is meant by disorganization, bad governance, imprudence and above all disability in listening either to sense or sensibility.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)

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