So given all the noise reverberating across our landscape or — should we call it soundscape? — (see this space in the August 6 issue), how much can we really be expected to listen, really listen, to the sounds that are really important to us?
Maybe we should all be forgiven if we happen to be lousy at listening. It’s not just the noise in the background, it’s distractions of all sorts. I can silence the ringer on my cell phone, but I can still detect the vibration of the phone in my pocket. And the blinking green light at the upper right corner of the screen tells me that I have received a text.
At the restaurant or bar the management may have kindly muted the ubiquitous television sets. But I can still see the flow of the closed captioning over the shoulder of my dinner companion. Air strikes launched in Iraq. Bombing continues in Gaza. Yankees down, 3-0, in the ninth — so many crises, so little time to consider . . . I’m sorry, what were you saying?
Listening is a challenge, and it’s not getting any easier. We live in a melting pot in central New Jersey, and not everyone shares our auditory interpretation of the English language. As I have noted before in this space (September 21, 2011), many a time we at U.S. 1 (an office where human beings still answer the call) have received a phone call that has bewildered one of our staff members. “There’s someone on the phone asking about an ad (or a story or whatever) and I can’t understand a word they say.”
Eventually I realized that our staff did not really try to listen to what was being said. With a little effort, the caller usually could be understood. As I began to say to make my point, “the caller’s English is a lot better than your Mandarin (or Russian or whatever).”
No wonder that when the Sarnoff Labs embarked on its epic quest to win the race to establish the national standard for high definition television, the managers adopted a rule of thumb that was later described by Curt Carlson in his 2006 book, “Innovation: the Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want:”
“You should communicate with your team 10 times more than you might have originally thought necessary.”
The first time you state an idea, the other person might not hear it. The second time he might hear it but not really listen. Eventually he might hear it but not really understand it. For some people Sarnoff’s 10-time rule takes the form of the 2-by-4 directive: Hit the guy upside the head with a 2-by-4 to get his attention; then tell him to listen to what you have to say.
Many of us are running the risk of getting the 2-by-4 treatment. After finishing up that column on noise, I have been looking into, keeping an ear out, for some judicious thoughts on listening. An E-mail to Garret Keizer, the author of “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want — a Book about Noise,” got a prompt response:
“I imagine there is good material (and some crackpot stuff too) coming out of the recent wave of interest in neuroscience,” Keizer wrote. “And since educators are very concerned with the relationship between listening and learning, there is probably some valuable research in that field as well. An early researcher in this area, still living, is the psychologist Arline Bronsaft, who studied the effects of noise on children’s learning in New York City schools.”
One neuroscientist (probably not a crackpot) addressed the topic directly in the New York Times (November 9, 2012). “Hearing is a vastly underrated sense,” wrote Seth S. Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University. “We tend to think of the world as a place that we see, interacting with things and people based on how they look. Studies have shown that conscious thought takes place at about the same rate as visual recognition, requiring a significant fraction of a second per event. But hearing is a quantitatively faster sense. While it might take you a full second to notice something out of the corner of your eye, turn your head toward it, recognize it, and respond to it, the same reaction to a new or sudden sound happens at least 10 times as fast.” (No wonder I jump when I suddenly encounter one of those nearly silent golf carts on a narrow path at the lake.)
But, writes Horowitz, “listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second — and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers. Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.”
Closer to home, Eileen Sinett of Comprehensive Communication Services in Plainsboro has made a career of helping people be better speakers. Sinett realizes that good speakers have to be able to deal with bad listeners.
“Listening has always been a forgotten skill,” she writes in an E-mail. “Not taught in our early education years, it’s assumed when we enter school that we have learned this. We’re told to ‘stop talking and listen,’ but we get no direct instruction. Yet the medium of teaching is listening, whether it be to a lecture, videotape, etc.”
Sinett points out that, “unless you are a special needs student or a college student studying communication sciences or neuroscience, there are few who really understand the complexity of listening.”
She believes there are at least 60 behavioral barriers to listening, with distracting background noise just one. Among the others: visual distractions, multitasking, not understanding a term or accent, a learning style that requires physical or visual input, a predetermined attitude about speaker or the subject, a tendency to start formulating a response before the speaker is finished, as well as old-fashioned (and increasingly prevalent) hearing problems.
Maybe honing our listening skills can increase our overall powers of observation. Last week a friend of mine told me about a trip he made to a prize fight at Madison Square Garden. His story triggered memories of the only boxing event I ever attended in person. I was doing a story on Don King, the wild-haired promoter who rose to fame along with Muhammad Ali. King was promoting a fight card in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that included the up-and-coming Larry Holmes, among others.
With a ringside seat I heard the thunderous power of hard blows to the body. But the blows that seemed to miss their target were punctuated by hissing sounds — like the sound of a carbonated beverage being opened. As I concentrated my attention on those punches I realized they were not totally missing — the sound was accompanied by flecks of flesh flying across the ring. Ah, the sights and sounds of the sweet science.
There is also the thought that by listening less we may end up hearing more. Real Simple magazine had a cover story earlier this year that caught my attention: “Yes, Walking Works!” One of the walking workout routines described is the “chill-out walk,” created by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk turned phone app developer (a bestseller called “Headspace,” for meditation, naturally).
Do not bring music or a phone on this walk, Puddicombe advises. Be aware of what you hear (and smell), and don’t try to block out any of these external stimuli. “Struggling against thoughts is what causes stress,” he says.
Nice idea, I think. Next time I am at the lake, when the power washers and the jet skis are cranking it up, I will not try to block them out. But I might walk off in another direction, up the hill, perhaps, to listen to what the blueberry bushes have to say.