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Have I got your attention? Seven ways to tell if someone is really listening to you

Unthinkable: We may be losing our ability to hear one another. Gerry Dunne, a philosopher who is studying the components of good listening, can help

I have a confession to make: I’m a bad listener. I know that because I’ve met good listeners and I’m not one of them.

There is no excusing it. The growth of the smartphone as an extra human limb and the parallel rise of the “distraction economy” have not helped matters. But I can’t scapegoat Big Tech. My only defence – although I wouldn’t dare call it a “defence” to my dearly-frustrated wife – is that I’m not alone in being a bad listener.

What’s more, it’s hard to reach the ideal, as Gerry Dunne, a philosopher who is studying the components of good listening, points out.

Listeners who “engage meaningfully and successfully with their fellow communicators” embody seven characteristics which Dunne lists as: (i) genuineness; (ii) engrossment and undivided attention; (iii) empathetic and humanising perspective-taking; (iii) unconditional positive regard; (iv) interpersonally-calibrated-goal-directed-critical-engagement; (v) authentic presentness, responsiveness and Verstehen-oriented attunement; (vi) spirit of mutual recognition and equality; and, (vii) supportive psychological climate.


If you got lost at point number (ii) don’t worry, Dunne explains again, only a bit slower this time:

“Taxonomies of good listening are not easy to find. Nor are they exhaustive. Broadly speaking, we might agree that listeners are genuine. They must genuinely care about what the speaker is saying and what they are trying to say. This requires a spirit of openness and charitableness.

“Good listeners are also expected to embody engrossment and undivided attention. The speaker must absorb all their focus. Next we might expect listeners to be empathetic and humanising. One way of looking at this is to frame empathy in terms of perspective taking. Humanising listening is nonjudgmental; it works from the premise that humans make mistakes.

“Unconditional positive regard captures the affirmatory affective and ontological presence of the speaker in relation to the listener. Basically this means they are on your side and you should feel like they are on your side.

“When we talk of interpersonally-calibrated-goal-directed-critical-engagement, this captures the fact that goal-setting is negotiated in such a way as to privilege the possibility of shared understandings. Authentic presentness, responsiveness and Verstehen-oriented attunement is a way of describing the fact that understanding [Verstehen in German] – shared or individual – is the goal of the listening process.

“All of this takes place, of course, in a spirit of mutual recognition and equality; a safe and supportive psychological climate where ‘the facts of the matter’ aren’t necessarily the ‘truth of the matter’ and both listener and speaker are tethered together in a co-operative sense-making pursuit carried out in an ‘exchange of reasons’ environment.”

See. Not so easy to be a good listener!

The bit of German is a nod in the direction of the philosopher Martin Heidegger who, in The Principle of Reason (Der Satz vom Grund) speaks about the belonging together of Being and Listening (capitalised in Heidegger’s literary style). “Not one to be easily outdone for opacity, he declares that ‘we hear, not the ear’,” Dunne explains.

“On this view, it is not bodies, sense organs, or even the brain per se that hears, but rather embodied beings. Though the ear and brain may register the sounds of a Bach fugue, only human beings can hear and interpret those sounds as music, for only a human being has the capacity to sense and feel meaning in whatever they hear.”

This means when you ask Alexa, the Amazon artificial-intelligence device, “What time is it?”, for example, she/it is not listening even though she/it may give you an answer. Only a human has the Verstehen-oriented attunement to detect that you’re secretly wondering is it time yet for another coffee.

Mention of technology raises another conundrum. Is it possible to listen on Twitter? Or really hear what is being said in an email? Given the way much of our communication is going, do we need to think about what constitutes listening on digital platforms?

“Absolutely. The spoken word is not the only show in town. The written word, gifs, emojis, likes, retweets, follows and unfollows etc, along with all the ambiguities and potential misinterpretations which accompany such, are sometimes amplified on digital platforms. This has a knock-on effect on our evaluation of risk, in terms of potential harm to those who read what we write or those we address our responses to.

“It also disproportionately affects those who make it their life’s work to avoid confrontation or discordance. For these people, they live in fear of being misinterpreted uncharitably. A consequence of this is that they disengage from digital platforms with the result that the main loser is knowledge production and shared understandings. Impoverished epistemic environments like this are testament to the power of ‘cancel culture’ and other analogous phenomena.”

“In this sense, given the interdependent nature of communication and inquiry, I suggest we do need to think much more deeply about what we constitute as listening on digital platforms.”

Dunne, who lectures in philosophy of education at Marino Institute of Education, in Dublin, is taking steps in this regard with Robin McKenna, a philosopher at Liverpool University. Together they are organising a conference next month in Dublin with a line-up of speakers from Ireland, Britain and the United States. A public conference that is mostly aimed at interdisciplinary academics, the organisers are, however, glad to welcome anyone interested in the topic and they expect educationalists, sociologists and cultural scholars to be among those in attendance.

But has all this research made Dunne, a former school teacher who investigates “epistemic vices” like ignorance, a better listener? “The short answer is yes and no,” he replies.

“Yes in the sense that it helps shine a light on areas in which you struggle or be less than ideal, and provides a roadmap to improve your practice. Not only can you now identify where you fall short, but the literature provides concepts to better understand why that might be the case and how you can do better next time.

“No in the sense that, arête or excellence is something we all strive for, but more often than not fall short on. And that’s okay. It’s part and parcel of being human. The demands of life make us less than we’d like to be at times. This impedes our capacity to listen well; to engage meaningfully with the risky subjectivities of a speaker’s vulnerability, to attend to the person as more than a means to an end; to see them as a subject, not an object.

“Patience, phronesis [wisdom] and care are, as I’ve said earlier, the heart of listening well. Not a day passes by that I don’t fall short though. And I think that is true for most of us. The only hope I have is that successive attempts are examples of failing better; trying to be better.”

The conference Listening-to-Learn-to-Understand: A Forgotten Virtue? is at Marino Institute of Education, Dublin 9, on Wednesday, June 28th

Ask a sage

How do you know when to shut up? Epictetus replies: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”