Speak less, listen more

  • Opinion
  • Sunday, 17 Jul 2016

THE song by Simon and Garfunkel, Sound of Silence, has been playing in my head this past week.

The reason is that I am temporarily transported into a world of silence because my hearing aids have been sent to the service centre in Singapore for a technical glitch to be fixed.

A small whiteboard next to me has been an effective communication tool – those who speak to me write down what they want to say, and I reply the normal way. Not really fair because they are limited by the space on the whiteboard while I can talk all I want.

In the lyrics of Sound of Silence, one verse stands out:

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never shared

No one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

We talk but we do not speak. We hear but we do not listen. These words permeate all aspects of life.

At the global level, we can see how countries, religions and ideologies are in regular conflict because no one is really listening to one another.

Every country also has issues that remain unresolved because too often politicians talk, without really speaking. And in response people hear without listening.

But I shall not venture into this area and spoil the tone of this column.

My reflection is on what it means to listen in everyday situations that affect ordinary people like us.

It has been said that the reason we have two ears but one mouth is that we are supposed to listen twice as much as we talk.

That certainly applies at work. When your staff comes to you with a problem, do you hear him out, or is it always a one-way monologue where you are telling him what to do without really listening?

A friend shared how his head of department would never even answer a phone call when he is in conversation with his staff.

He genuinely listens, making the person he is with feel like he is the most important person in the world.

In marriage, too, listening is critical. Marital conflicts often escalate when neither partner is willing to listen.

When all the talk goes in one ear and comes out the other, issues remain unresolved.

The art and the heart of listening is most relevant for those who visit patients going through a medical journey.

The silent visitor who comes to hold your hand and just listen, provides much comfort.

Contrast that with those who offer all sorts of advice, from health foods to the alternative treatments you should consider – talking without speaking, and certainly without listening.

Clearly, listening is a skill that we should all sharpen. When we become better listeners, we improve our productivity as well as our ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. On top of that, we avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

All of these are necessary for success at the workplace and, indeed, in all of life.

As business magnate and founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, said, “Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak. Wherever I go, I try to spend as much time as possible listening to the people I meet.”

By the same token, judicious words used sparingly speak volumes. In a world where our ears are subjected to much chatter and noise, we long to hear words of comfort, encouragement, inspiration, wisdom.

May we make it a point today to speak less and listen more, in order that we may, as St Francis of Assisi prayed, be an instrument of peace – sowing love where there is hatred, and hope where there is despair.

Executive editor Soo Ewe Jin is glad that this week of silence has shut down the sounds of the world and given him more time to reflect.

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