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Conscious Listening and Sound Perception The difference between hearing and listening

Read more Last updated: May 2020
In collection Health
Reading duration: 7 minutes

Although we may not always readily perceive it, there is a difference between hearing and listening: the former is a function, the latter, a skill. One way of looking at the contrast is to compare it to different types of breathing: that which we do reflexively, compared to the type encouraged by yoga practitioners. Yes, we breathe, as a matter of course (and survival!) 24 hours a day but, so instinctive is this function that we rarely pause to examine or savour it. When we do – filling the diaphragm through the nose, exhaling our breath (and stress) through the mouth – we experience greater levels of connection and calm.

The same, in a sense, may be said of our aural function. Although our ears, according to their varying capabilities, may always be ‘hearing,’ there’s another level of consciousness - and, subsequently, connection - that comes into play when we ‘listen.’ It’s the difference, one might say, between automatically ‘doing’ and intentionally ‘tuning in’ to what our bodies are doing: guzzling down mouthfuls of hurried food, compared to slowly chewing, tasting and appreciating, for instance.

Although breathing and eating may be seen as insular activities – that is, they are conducted independently of another person – and although the different ways we breathe and eat may, primarily, be seen only to impact on ourselves, listening has a social function. It connects us with the world around us, and with the people we come into contact with. It fosters mutual understanding, tolerance, respect and compassion: as one of the keystones of communication, which plays a critical role in human survival, the ability to listen is vital.


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Noise Nuisance

In an increasingly busy – and clamorous – world, however, there are concerns that many of us may be losing our ability to listen. We are assailed by ‘noise’ from all sides - not only by conventional sounds, like sirens, traffic, chatter, the radio, but also by social media, by headlines, by advertising and by banners announcing supermarket specials. Interestingly, not all sounds are heard by the ears: some may be seen by the eyes but, nevertheless, the end result is a tidal wave of information. Faced with such an overload, our brains, it may be said, will struggle to tune in to what’s important: the cacophony of messages reduces ‘listening’ to merely ‘hearing’.

There is another effect of all of this. Not only is it difficult to listen; it is also difficult to be heard. Faced with this fact, say some experts, individuals resort to focusing their efforts, even more, on their own broadcasting, shouting their own ideas, arguments, views and opinions into the din.

Again, there is a relationship between noise, in an auditory sense, and ‘noise’ in a visual sense here. Take, for example, a social media platform such as Twitter or Instagram, which, it is argued, encourage ‘speaking without listening.’ Scrolling through tweets without pausing to really take in what we are reading, posting our own tweet to eagerly view its ‘retweets’, a rapid-fire flick through Instagram without bothering to read captions or context, combined with the meticulous uploading of our own photo and the thrill of gratification when those ‘likes’ start trickling in ... this is akin to how many interactions play out in the modern world. While someone else is speaking, we are already mentally preparing what we are going to say. We may be inwardly refuting their views. We may even interrupt. This whole model of ‘listening’ is flawed; it is the act of hearing only, and even then, barely at all. The focus is on oneself: not on the speaker, and certainly not on their words, nor their intentions.

Are we losing our abilities to listen?

Before the advent of script, human beings depended upon oral - and therefore, also, aural - traditions. It was through the spoken and heard word that stories of creation were passed down, that customs were enshrined and that laws were transmitted from one generation to another. Humans have since developed new ways of recording - first, through the written word and, later, through audio and video technology. The impetus to listen, and to listen consciously and carefully, has been removed by these advances. What need is there to accurately capture in one’s memory a recipe, for example, transmitted in speech by an elder, when it can later be looked up in a book or online? What urgency surrounds the retention of a ceremonial song when it can be revisited, via a recording, at will?

According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, humans retain only about 20% of what they hear - although it should be noted that this estimate relates to hearing in isolation; its efficacy increases when combined with other activities. Given that this model was created in the 1960s, to what extent have we, in gradually losing this ability to listen, further eroded our ability to remember?

Seen in this way, it is evident that attention span, memory and auditory function are linked. The challenge for modern individuals is to tune out the noise and retrain their focus on nuance and subtlety; to actively and consciously listen for the cues and subtext that give meaning to experience and to conversation; to quieten their own voices and minds in order to hear, understand, retain, process and reflect back into the world.

Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience
Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience
© Getty Images

Listen closely

Experts point out that how we listen is shaped by our own expectations, experiences, pre-existing impressions and prejudices. All of these things can alter our perception and detract from what the speaker is actually saying, or trying to say. To this end, we need to practise a type of mindfulness when listening.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus, mindfulness means "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." It means recognising one’s reactions to various stimuli - and then letting them go. In the context of yoga or self-reflection, this requires us to commune primarily with ourselves; in the context of social listening, we need to empty our minds and block out external distractions, focusing solely on the speaker, their words, their nuances, their tone and their body language.

There are various ways of achieving this. One is by seeking silence for a few minutes each day. Removed from the noise and ‘busyness’ of everyday life, we can home in on the sounds that might otherwise be drowned out: the distant hum of traffic, birdsong in the garden, the creak of a floorboard. Practising this level of focus develops the ability to notice subtleties of speech and language, even when the setting is not one of quiet. Another way that follows on from this, according to sound expert Julian Treasure, is to tune in to various underlying sounds even in a noisy environment - for instance, to focus on one particular voice in a busy, chatty setting, or to pick out the various strands of sound which are combining to create a whole wall of noise. It is, perhaps, the listener’s equivalent of wine tasting: deconstructing an overall impression to discover its constituent parts.


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To listen means to communicate and connect

Why is this important though? As mentioned earlier, communication is vital for human existence. It follows, therefore, that successful communication is vital for successful human existence. Granted, in a workplace setting, success might look like profit, promotion and persuasion - and yes, all of these are important, to be sure - but in day to day interactions the focus is less on winning and more about connecting, in a way that boosts mental health, emotional health and, in turn, human health. It makes speakers feel valued, fleshes out the listener’s perception, thus heightening their emotional intelligence - and, ultimately, helps to create a world in which individuals, while still holding their own thoughts, can be less inward-facing, kinder, more empathetic and more aware.

Perhaps the most important word here is ‘connecting.’ When we consider those for whom hearing is problematic, the sense of disconnect from the world around can be both jarring and disconcerting. When all sounds are indistinct, or when differentiating between them is tiring, it is understandable to want to retreat into a ‘sound bubble’ of sorts - to want to silence the noise and remove the stress of trying to hear, or listen, by turning inwards. While this inner listening is valuable, helping us to connect with ourselves, connecting with others is also critical. Before we can learn to fully listen, we must be able to hear. Loss or impairment of the latter can have a serious impact on our ability to practise, perform and perfect the former.


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