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The art of listening

By - Jul 22, 2012 - Category Readings - Print Print - Version française
The art of listening

On Listening to Lectures (De auditu), in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library No. 197 (1927)

It is not enough to learn to speak well. If we want to benefit from the words of those who intend to convey knowledge to us, we also need to learn to listen well. This, briefly, is Plutarch’s main thesis in “On Listening to Lectures”. It is quite remote from the current discourse on listening, which defines it almost exclusively as the condition of an authentic relationship to others, as this quiet action that could open us up to the subjectivity of others so that we may grasp their needs, desires and frustrations. This short essay examines listening as a “necessary condition to learning”. In other words, how shall we listen to those who know (or pretend to know) in a way that will allow us to take in what we need and thus progress in the knowledge—so dear to Plato’s followers—of truth and good?

In a few pages of startling clarity, Plutarch examines the major obstacles to fruitful listening and the means to overcome them. Whether the issue is jealous rivalry, which makes us belittle the “lofty speeches” of those whose talent we envy, excessive attention to form rather than substance, or the kind of blind admiration that makes us agree indiscriminately with everything that is said, the fundamental reason which prevents us from learning from others is, ultimately, our own moral shortcomings. That is one of the main contentions of this essay. The responsibility for transmitting knowledge and virtue does not lie exclusively with the person who conveys it—the educator. It equally lies with the one who receives it. The recipient too has “duties to fulfill”. Education and in particular “philosophical education”, which closely resembles the process of spiritual perfection as described by Ostad Elahi, requires the learner’s active collaboration.

This collaboration starts with some work on the quality of one’s listening. It extends to the way one questions the educator. For listening doesn’t imply that the student should stay quiet. Questions are more than welcome, provided however that they meet the level of the initial discourse. Plutarch’s stigmatises questions that are trivial or irrelevant, as well as those related to matters the speaker has no knowledge of or whose sole purpose is to contradict. He also cautions those working on their moral and spiritual perfection against two listening flaws: one consists in becoming indifferent to criticisms formulated by others (in particular by our “educators”), taking them lightly and not giving them much importance; the other is, on the contrary, to become overly sensitive to criticisms, displaying a hypersensitivity that will lead us to turn our back on those whose advice and attention would have helped us to know ourselves better and improve.

Everyone has been (and may still be), in one field or another, in turn the student and the teacher. If only for this, we would definitely benefit a great deal from making ourselves Plutarch’s attentive listeners. He reminds us how the educator we all are—if only occasionally—should be mindful of the truthfulness of his words. Whether we realise it or not, our words have an effect. They affect the soul of their recipient to various degrees, always with a risk of causing damage, but quite fortunately also with the possibility of instilling good: “virtue’s only hold upon the young is afforded by the ears”. At the same time, the philosopher commits us to better listen so that we may learn not only from those who tell the truth but also from those who spread falsehood: “Everyone ought to be ready ever to repeat to himself, as he observes the faults of others, the utterance of Plato, ‘Am I not possibly like them?’”. In doing so, we may become conscious of the ongoing need to develop an ear that is demanding when it comes to the truth, yet benevolent in the face of misconducts we could just as well be faulty of.

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  1. Ilana Jul 27, 2012 6:02 pm 1

    Yes, this has helped me try and work on shifting my focus in every day situations. For the moment, in my summer activities and environment this resounds in me in very ordinary contexts. This explanation of what it mean to “listen” with the supporting reference to Plutarch helps me remember and visualize that I am on “my” path and that the things that I hear or that are said to me, to a greater extent, as the things that happen to me, all are part of the learning environment I am in, or I have been given. Often I have felt myself retaliate, whether to judge others or to flee in offense or maybe to feel an exaggerated sense of admiration…but focusing in this way, I feel closer to the Source, I feel that it/He is all around me and exposing me to situations that I can learn from, about myself. One question that has popped up in thinking about this is however in relation to Ostad’s prayer: do not allow me to commit, seek or confront anything that is contrary to your satisfaction. If I hear words that I feel are offensive, wrong and that hurt my feelings or sense of justice or decency, and that I am to learn something about myself from them, how at the same time am I asking “not” to be confronted…Maybe I need to rethink “contrary to His satisfaction”. The other day I heard someone speak ill of Mohamad. And then also of Mary. It was a person of authority with relation to myself. So I wondered, do I need to control my impulse to “correct” this person who is quite rigid and set in their ways (actually, I think I did say something to the extent of, it does not reflect positively on one to say such things…) or to learn to stay fast in my heart, no matter what I “hear” on the outside. That it does not discourage me. Or to seek the right balance of looking on others without judging them, without negative feelings, and yet being able to know how to react (ignore, correct, walk away?).
    As I think about these things, I do realize the great gift of becoming more and more aware of the extent to which we are, as individuals, so close to Him every moment of the day!

  2. Juneone Jul 29, 2012 2:01 pm 2

    Whenever I read these articles, I take note of the moment that I ‘wince’. As, that is usually the moment when my imperious self is exposed to something that it least wants me to know. In this article, there were a few, but the biggest reaction was:

    “Everyone ought to be ready ever to repeat to himself, as he observes the faults of others, the utterance of Plato, ‘Am I not possibly like them?’”.

    Often full of judgement about what others say, I rarely consider those times that I too might have tweaked the truth to manipulate a situation to my benefit. But here, I am understanding that I need to flip that interpretation: words have an ‘effect’, and have the potential to cause damage. If I am a fraction of the good human-being that imagine myself to be, i would refrain from causing damage, in any way that I can.

  3. al Jul 30, 2012 12:10 am 3

    Thank you for this.

    ‘Am I not possibly like them?’”, what a great yet simple thought !

  4. Johnny Jul 30, 2012 5:25 am 4

    @Ilana: I think it is completely natural for each person to have a certain sense of defensiveness towards their ideas and beliefs, and it is extremely admirable that you even reflect upon your possible reactions to when these are challenged.

    But I think what is meant by the line you mentioned is not necessarily to avoid situations which offend our beliefs or hurt our feelings per se, but rather to avoid those things which would cause us to stray or hinder our spiritual development. He wants what is truly in our best interests, and our situation is similar to that of a child who does not always understand why a parent acts in a certain way (such as sending them to school where they will inevitably encounter tests and challenges). And this is perhaps where listening to His messages becomes a delicate art!

    So if you sincerely pray not to commit, seek or confront anything contrary to His satisfaction, yet find yourself in these situations, don’t be discouraged, for what we encounter in this world is an opportunity to learn and improve the self. In Medicine of the Soul (p. 44), Dr Elahi explains that the faculty of discernment can be developed through correct practice and experience, and at the beginning, our condition is much like that of a tightrope walker, who is hesitant and tilts one side and then the other, before being able to walk straight. So perhaps it is only by facing similar scenarios repeatedly that the ‘right balance’ which you describe can be achieved, because each situation might necessitate a slightly different response. Finally, many thanks for sharing your inspiring reflections and experiences!

  5. jo Jul 31, 2012 11:31 pm 6

    Thank you for this illuminating article. According to the article, “the fundamental reason which prevents us from learning from others is, ultimately, our own moral shortcomings.” This statement caused me to examine myself to see what character defects come between me and learning, thus creating obstacles in the growth and development of my “self”? The list turned out to be long… Among them, pride (i.e. who is this person to teach me…), envy, need for attention (i.e. I should be the one doing the talking), prejudice and bias, being self-absorbed, being self-righteous, not to mention abstinent (i.e. my way or the highway)… Basically, forgetting why I am here on earth, or in short, a lack of a spiritual vision. I was using the listening techniques I have learned throughout the years only to fulfill the social and psychological necessities in the arena of effective communication or basically relating to others.
    This article reminded me that there are spiritual reasons behind learning to listen attentively:
    1- Learning what lessons our educator wants to convey to us — With the ultimate educator being “the Source” and of course those who convey spiritual messages to us whether they are aware of it or not.
    2- Testing whether I’ve become indifferent to criticisms thus dismissing them altogether to my ultimate spiritual detriment, or whether I have become too sensitive to criticisms thus avoiding those who care enough to give me advice.
    3- Learning the importance of the effect of my words on others.
    4- Learning from the faults I observe in others by first looking inside to see traces of such faults within myself. And, as a result of this examination, learning to be tolerant and forgiving when others make mistakes.
    5- Embracing the lesson being conveyed by learning to ask relevant and constructive questions to further the cause of the lesson instead of fighting the lesson by irrelevant, contradicting or discussion-derailing questions.

  6. Ilana Aug 03, 2012 1:39 pm 7

    @Johnny: Thank you for your help and suggestions.
    It is amazing how direct interaction on this website as well as the comments of others in general contribute to helping us better understand questions that arise in our lives and spiritual paths, as do also those perspectives others point our that we did not see and now do; as we all react differently and pay attention to different “details”.

  7. tom Aug 18, 2017 2:12 pm 8

    I have found that my lack of listening comes from a lack of patience. I tend to assume that i know what the person wants to say, it’s like when you know what the paragraph you are reading wants to say, and so you stop reading, except in this case, I stop listening. I interrupt or my thoughts trail off.

    There is someone I work with who is VERY long-winded. He tends to ramble on and on when he wants to say something, and I get very agitated by this. Either I interrupt to try to wrap it up, or I simply say something generic like, “wow!” or “you never know..” and then I walk away. I am so embarrassed to say this, but I act that rude with this person! It turns out it is also a lack of patience. I am working hard on stopping this behavior, to actually engage with him, and to stop interrupting people (especially my husband and family).

    1. adissam Aug 22, 2017 2:01 am 8.1

      Thanks, it made me think about how, just today, I interrupted a family member. In echo to your experience, one day, after I had listened long enough to someone, the person said to me “it’s been so helpful”. It was an eye-opening moment.

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