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OFF CENTRE: Shut up and listen!


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Shut up and listen!

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I hear that you are into “personal broadcasting” (sound expert Julian Treasure says that nowadays what is supposedly conversation on closer examination is “personal broadcasting”).
You think that accusation should be directed at politicians.
You hear them saying that we need to have a national conversation about this or that topic.
So people go to town hall meetings, deluge call-in programmes, write letters to the newspapers, and put in their two cents’ worth here and there.
And then look on with disgusted dissatisfaction as it seems to be all for naught.
Anyway, that is politicians – but you are different, right?
Well, answer me this: In a “normal” conversation – in contrast to a deeply personal one – do you usually give evidence to your fellow converser/interlocutor/confabulator (since dese ones seem obzocky, wha really is the best word fuh a person who is involved in a conversation?) that you are leaning in with both your body and your mind, not to speak but to really hear?
Or consciously give cues (“uh-huh”, “yes”, “I see”, “okay”) that you are not just hearing or thinking of what to say next but are really interested in “getting” them?
In such circumstances, when last did you ask clarifying question after clarifying question of someone, although you were filled to the brim with points of view?
How often have you remained silent while showing real interest in what someone else was saying on a matter about which you had in fact seriously reflected and examined and filled your mind with potential studied outpourings?
What about summarising or paraphrasing (“so you mean . . . ?” or some equivalent) the other person’s statements?
Is that a practice of yours?
When was the last time you consciously helped the other person to be the king/queen of the conversation?
When you did not use them for your own “personal broadcasting”?
I can see you squirming, but at least you have a lot of company.
Our world is more and more predisposing us to listen less to others.
Although we have benefited in other ways from various means of preserving (writing, audio recording, video recording) our thought products, the cause of listening to others around us has not been particularly helped by them.
And inventions to advance ourselves – to manufacture things, to move ourselves around, to help us accomplish tasks – have in many cases brought us a noisier world.
Even as we have created more means to entertain ourselves, we have created more noise and less likelihood of listening to each other. For example, when the radio or television is on or when one is in the cinema, talk is necessarily shushed out.
And today’s ever present headphones take us into our own sound bubbles while inclining us to hearing only the voices of people who are not actually with us.
Then there are the various filters that, again, may do good on one hand but often compromise our ability to really hear others: culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, intentions.
How, then, are we going to understand each other? We desperately need to do that ’cause we are, many of us, so filled with our own urgencies, fixations, egotrips, sectarian interests and burgeoning passion to hear only ourselves that we are threats to peaceful coexistence and progress.
You would think that with the explosion of connectivity and availability of new media we would be more broad-minded. In fact, as one person said, it is but an “imaginary cosmopolitanism” for large numbers of people are simply gravitating towards their own “kind”, thereby being drawn into the “wisdom of the flock”.
But there is hope.
I myself have started to listen more. Over the last two years or so my inspiration has come principally from TED talks.
TED talks, with the slogan Ideas Worth Spreading, are presentations – usually not lasting longer than 18 minutes – by experts and academics and other very involved people, that are fascinatingly engaging.
Not stiff oratory, they are usually delivered with dollops of humour and with a conversationality (whatever the topic) that is quite appealing. With your smartphone or tablet (these days almost everybody has one or both) you can download (in no time) the app TED Talks or TED Air and take the over 1 600 talks with you.
And be intrigued and deeply engaged. And practise listening.
And practise thinking that, after all, you don’t know so much.
I have never experienced so many mind-widening insights in such a short span of time as I have in listening to TED talks.
Our public lecturers could learn a lot from this format – they who go on for an hour or more in presentations that only the cognoscenti or the already converted can tolerate/endure/stomach.
Trinidad’s Afra Raymond talks about corruption; colour-blind Nash Harbisson talks about listening in colour; Stanley McChrystal is interesting in Listen, Learn . . . Then Lead. You will be stimulated by Stuart Firestein’s The Pursuit Of Ignorance; lots of food for thought in Life In the Digital Now (Abha Dawesar) as in Let’s Treat Violence As A Contagious Disease (Gary Slutkin).
Listen, nuh.
Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]

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