‘Help, I need somebody, Help, not just anybody, Help, you know I need someone, help.’ John Lennon was blunt and upfront when talking about the opening lyrics to the Beatles hit single in an interview, ‘it was real … it was just me singing “Help!” and I meant it.’ The chorus of the song pleads, ‘Help me if you can, I’m feeling down. And I do appreciate you being round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you please, please help me?’ Despite this open confession it was difficult to take seriously as the single was released at the height of Beatlemania in July 1965. Could the all conquering Beatles really need help? Lennon would later recount how no one would listen to him even when crying out for help because they chose to see the power of the Beatles rather than hear the words of a fellow human.
Listening is without doubt a gift. Some people are naturally inclined to listen. These special people, who are usually never short of friends, not only hear the words but the heart of a person when they speak. But listening is not only a gift it is also an art. It is something we can train ourselves to do and it is something we can improve at if we are inclined to do so.
But therein lies the crucial factor. Do we want to listen to other people? A classic example of this in my experience concerns travel. Particularly from an isolated island-continent like Australia, overseas travel is a momentous occasion for a person usually involving months or years of saving and planning. There is a unique form of excitement that travel produces and a unique sort of joy in sharing this with others. Yet people’s reaction to others who want to talk about it is telling.
How often does a recently returned traveller attempt to recount their adventures only to find themselves in a mean-spirited and selfish game of one-upmanship? The traveller mentions how they were moved by the poverty on the streets of Toronto only for their friend to feign empathy before stealing the spotlight and talking about their time in Calcutta. Whatever experience the traveller had, good or bad, the friend waits with predatory glee for the shortest of pauses so they can share their similar but more elaborate and entertaining stories. Seasoned travellers are often the worst offenders and seem unable or unwilling to remember the child-like excitement they had on tourist jaunts before they moved up the ranks of migratory snobbery.
The problem with this response is that it misses the point of communication so spectacularly. The traveller did not want an open forum on where the worst poverty in the world is. They did not request a detailed itinerary of their friend’s time in India. They had simply had a moving experience in Toronto and wanted to share it.
This is of course, a vice we are all guilty of. Rudyard Kipling speaks of the webbed and inward looking eye and to an extent we can’t help but immediately respond to others by thinking, ‘how does this affect me?’ But this is where listening becomes an art like all others. To put a leash of the selfish impulse to which we are all prone is something we can make ourselves do. When a friend starts sharing something personal, resist the urge to immediately recount your similar experience. At least initially, just let them get off their chest what they are trying to say.
In many ways we live in a plastic world which thrives on appearance and cares little for content. People will express words of sympathy and solidarity with the victims of a natural disaster then howl in protest when their taxes are raised to help restore the community. People will ask someone how they are going then recoil at their presumptuousness if the answer is anything more complex that, ‘well thank you.’ Like Narcissus, we have become entranced by our own reflection in the stream and have actually come to believe that our own gratification is not only the most noble of all goals but the most pressing as well.
Robert McCloskey once quipped, ‘I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ The art of listening ultimately hinges on the question, do we really want to hear? It is incredible how many divorces seem to one partner like a bomb shell and to the other a slow and inevitable decline. Perhaps we can excuse not listening to people on our fringe circle but how can you fail to listen to your partner speaking to you for years and then be shocked to find divorce papers in front of you? Even with our most intimate partners it seems, unless we actively choose to listen, we will not hear.
Kenneth A. Wells once said, ‘a good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.’ We need this outlook if we hope to engage in meaningful discourse with others. We are so much the richer for hearing and understanding the different ways people see and interpret the world.
Ultimately, though, it is a matter of respect. By choosing to listen we are sending an important message. We are telling the other person that they are worth listening to, that they are important and that they matter. You can never underestimate how important it might be for someone to hear this message. Through the art of listening we confer honour on our lovers, family, friends and place value on humanity.