The next time you are on a crowded street at the busiest time of the day, close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? A lot. You hear so much that it’s like you are not hearing anything. Sometimes you can’t hear the person right next to you. Sometimes you can hear yourself. And yet, every single sound you hear has a meaning. Each sound could be important. Each one could be unimportant. Perhaps what is important to one person could be ridiculous to another. The problem is simple: we can’t find out if anything is important or unimportant unless we hear it in the first place.
Words have weights. They get the weight of voice. The louder the word is spoken the better chance of it being heard. Then it is not the intrinsic value of the word that counts but the volume with which it is spoken. Words are weighted by the speaker. When an ‘important’ person says a word it means much more than if a ‘lesser’ person said it. Personalities can therefore make trivial things sound important and by the same token some nondescript individual can devalue something that could be of crucial importance by the mere fact that it is he/she that articulates it. That’s about prejudices. We all have them and it’s hard to shed them.
When the ‘leader’ for example talks nonsense, we listen, believing that maybe there’s something we don’t understand and that this is why we think it is drivel. When a new recruit says something we don’t hear him/her and even if we did we think it can’t be that important because…well….he/she is new (“what does he/she know?” we ask ourselves and each other!).
Listening is a problem because hearing is tough. It becomes even tougher because sometimes things are said without words and in the rush of voices and expressions you can miss the nuances of expression. They say when the boss makes a joke you have to laugh. It’s like that. When those who are supposed to know a lot make mistakes you are supposed to act as though it is not a mistake. You are not supposed to challenge the boss.
A good leader, though, will listen. A good leader will hear each and every word. A good leader is better able to assess the true worth of a word. A good leader will not let the volume with which something is said influence his or her judgment. A good leader will understand that even the most experienced rebel can err and that even the newest recruit might have an insight that has escaped everyone else. A good leader will listen for silences and read them. A good leader will read faces. A good leader will more often than not draw out the voice of sanity. A good leader will more often than not obtain the dispassionate but rational proposal from a hundred ideas that a hundred people scream into his or her ear.
Developing hearing skills is not easy but it is something that can make a big difference when decisions are made by a group of people, especially a group of passionate, intense and committed rebels. The nice thing about it is that you can develop such skills anywhere and anytime. It doesn’t have to be at political meetings. You can start teasing out different sounds from a street corner or a market place. You can do it at school or in an office, a coffee shop or a dance floor. There’s always noise. And once you can draw out the individual sound or voice you will discover that you are obtaining a lot more information than you used to. Information can be crucial but that’s another essay altogether.
Here’s a trick to improve listening. Be silent. It helps.
*When I was working at 'The Nation' I wrote a column for the FREE section of the paper which was dedicated to youth. The title of the column was 'Notes for a Rebel'. I wrote a total of 52 articles in this series. I have resumed by 'Notes for a Rebel', this time writing for the website www.nightowls.lk.