Read an excerpt from Arun Maira’s book, Listening for Well-being

ByArun Maira
Jan 27, 2023 01:13 PM IST

The management consultant and former member of the Planning Commission of India draws from his life experience to emphasise the power of deep listening. This excerpt looks at the types of listening one can encounter while engaging with those who have different views.

Listening to others is not easy when what they say seems so wrong. It may seem wrong because others see the same reality through different lenses. Like the blind men around the elephant, each of us is convinced that what we see is the truth, which it may be. But it is not the whole truth. The first level of listening is to pay attention to ‘what’ the other person is saying, even if one does not agree. The instinct of a debater is to get ready with a riposte to prove the other wrong. Therefore, a debater stops listening even while the other is speaking.

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Unlike a good debater, a good listener listens well to what the other is saying and also ‘listens’ to her own mind’s reactions to it. She notices her disagreement, and her desire to counter the other. But she stops herself, and goes into a second and deeper level of listening. At this level, she wonders ‘why’ the other thinks the way he does. And, rather than debate the other, she asks the other, with genuine interest, ‘Why do you believe what you do?’ Thus, she begins to inquire into another’s way of thinking, and begins to see the ‘lens’ through which the other sees the world.

From this second level, deep listeners come to a third, even more profound level of listening. Here, the listener begins to notice the difference between her own way of seeing the world and the other’s. Thus, she may begin to see her own lens. Our lenses are our ways of seeing and thinking. They are buried in the backs of our minds. We cannot see them with our own eyes. However, we may see them reflected in the eyes of another. Deep listening makes one aware of ‘who’ another is.

It also brings self-awareness about who we are. Listening is for the health of a society like breathing is for the health of the body. Breathing tones up the mind and the organs of the body. Listening unclogs conversations and tones up democratic institutions. A good yoga teacher trains his pupil to breathe well. Then, he encourages her to concentrate on her breathing for a few moments each day: sitting on a chair at home, or even while travelling in the subway. Similarly, listening can be practiced everywhere: in a conversation with one’s spouse, a discussion amongst a few friends, deliberations amongst stakeholders in a project, in small meetings, and in large conventions too.

The more we listen to each other, and the better we get at it, the faster and further we will go on ‘the road less travelled by’ so far. This we must, if we want to improve the world for everyone, and make a better world for ourselves too. The question, ‘What sort of a world are we leaving behind for our grandchildren?’ has become a cliché. We cannot continue to live as we are, and leave it to our children to produce a more inclusive, just, harmonious and sustainable world for our grandchildren.

We must change now. And we have no option: we must collaborate with others to shape our collective future. Let us listen to our own aspirations. We must also listen to the aspirations of people not like us for the better world that they want to leave for their grandchildren.

(Excerpted with permission from Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us by Arun Maira, published by Rupa & Co; 2017)

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