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Shirola: We must re-learn the art of listening

Wesley Shirola, Columnist

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Philosophers and intellectuals have long said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. But in a society marked by short attention spans, too little time and an almost innate love for electronic devices, this wisdom seems to have been lost.

Talking to, listening to and collaborating with others — especially those who are different from us — can make us more creative, innovative and ultimately, smarter. According to a 2014 article published in Scientific American, decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers has shown that socially diverse groups are more creative and innovative than homogeneous ones. That alone should be reason enough to work on being be a more active and attentive listener.

Listening is also important for the interpretation and dissemination of knowledge. As Henning Mankell wrote in The New York Times in 2011: “Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.”

Quite simply, if we’re not listening intently, we’re missing out on gaining new perspectives, and in turn bettering ourselves. We should strive to make listening a guiding principle in our lives, rather than something purely instrumental.

Listening, much like other skills, can be developed through practice, or lost if not valued and given importance. And lost it seems to be. While there’s no single reason for this, it may stem from the belief that communication is simple and straightforward — something we do on a daily basis — when in reality it is far from that.

The world is chock full of distractions, both external and internal. No one can ignore all of them at any given moment. Moreover, everyone’s brain is different — both in how it gathers and processes the spoken word and in the actual information it has collected. This all serves as a substantial barrier to good listening and communication.

We must re-learn the art of listening before it becomes completely lost in the constant chatter of our busy society. Only then will we be able to reap its benefits once again. So, how do we do actually become better listeners?

The first, and possibly simplest, thing we can do is disconnect from our screens and technology from time to time. But most importantly, we need to focus on what we are hearing. We should pause to actually think about what others have said before responding. We ought to ask questions — not just to keep a conversation going — but because we actually want to hear others’ answers.

Listening is vital to our well-being as a society. It is how we learn of political developments, the newest breakthroughs in scientific research and dire situations both at home and abroad. By listening to others we can realize the great diversity of those around us, learn new things and better the world.

So, open your ears to the sounds of the world around you, and listen to the unique life stories of your peers. And who knows? You’ll most likely learn something new, not only about the world, but about yourself as well.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at wesleyshirola2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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