What is listening? 

What does it mean when someone actually listens to another person?

How often does this actually happen?


In order to answer the last two questions, obviously you have answer the first one, first.

So what is listening?

“You know why I come here? 


“Cause when people think your dying man, they really, really listen to you.”


“—Instead of waiting for their turn to speak.”

–Flight Club


Why does this have to be the case and what is meant in this instance about what listening is?

Imagine if you said something about your day that was really important to you, had an impact such as getting a promotion or making some new advance or innovation in what you do. 

Wouldn’t you rather someone understand how and why it happened, as opposed to just that it happened? 

And let’s say you then brought it up to someone equally important, like a friend or spouse, and in response they said something like: ‘Wow, yeah, that’s great!’ And left it at that.

And what if that’s pretty much the extent of all they said for anything that was important to you at all, whatsoever. 

It amazes me how often I actually see just that between people who get away with doing it, and ‘leaving it at that.’ 

In this way relationships are less like relationships and more like two ships passing in the night. 


Is that what a real relationship consists of?


Simultaneously, I see people give long-winded advice, stories, situations, etc., I see the other person sitting and ‘listening’ to them, and the one whose telling the story just keeps going while the other says things like…



“I get you”

“No, I know exactly what you mean.”

“Uh huh”



Beware of these, if a conversation or any verbal interaction of any length consists exclusively of these, and there is a theme resembling this in how someone interacts with you, odds are, they are humoring you more than they are listening.


Now contrast these with phrases like:


“What do you mean?”

“Can you give me an example?”

“What exactly does that imply?”

“Are you sure?”

“That doesn’t sound too healthy.”


“Then, that must be why.”

“That’s how that works.”



Then I wonder: How much of what people ‘hear,’ are they actually getting?


Now imagine if someone said in response to your accomplishment on your good day: 

‘Wow, that’s really awesome, it’s going to enable you to do more work, and if you keep using the technique you’ve been trying, it will grow exponentially.


Isn’t that a bit better? Why?

Because: It is FEEDBACK.


The dictionary will tell you that feedback is…

‘the modification or control of a process or system by its results or effects’

I would say this means feedback is modifying what is said (the system or process) by means of how you react, whereas, in a conversation without feedback, no modification takes place.

Another part that seems vital to it is also the translation of an idea into another form as synthesized through another piece or set of data, ending in a new deduction, which in turn, furthers more and more feedback. 

In other words, someone listens to you, and gives their opinion about it, and the original opinion, yours, has been transformed in some way that adds onto it. You then react to how they reacted. 

I am astounded at how many people actually regard listening as merely being the recipient to information. The reason that I regard this as basically and often completely superfluous, is due to the fact that when I actually go back and see what the person retained from what I’m saying, I get either one of two responses:

Either, A, they can’t repeat anything back to me, or B, they repeat back what I said verbatim. 

Of these two responses, I reveal that their difference Is an illusion by the mere fact that in suddenly asking what I meant by a given idea, people are not generally able to tell me, or (which happens more often than anything else) they save face by coming up with something right there on the spot, which is nice, but wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t called them out on it. And I don’t want to have to call people out on not listening to me all the time, its exhausting and I have better things to do.

All in all, this means that people are either completely zoning out or they take what I said as a memorized recitation, both of which tend to suck.

What people are not normalized to is the fact that neither of these is valid, because neither of these actually produces anything.

I want to say to all those friends and family members, all the people I see who think they are being listened to, to actually stop for a moment to test the person for comprehension. I think anyone would be astounded at how little of what we say is actually being processed.


So, does listening mean that someone is able to repeat back to you what you’ve said verbatim? 

Does listening mean comprehending? What is comprehension? Why bring something up if nothing is generated from it?

Comprehension doesn’t mean memorizing. Most people take understanding something to mean a general regard for it. But what use is a ‘general understanding’ if it seldomly relates to action? 

Comprehension is what produces feedback.


Take this exchange for example:

“I detest pornography, it’s demeaning to women.”


“I know, I hate porn, it’s cheap, smutty, full of images of people having sex with no love attached, and that’s what people learn when they watch it, to view sex without love.”


“Yeah, I know, more and more, we’re detached from the actual act of sex.”


“Well, in any case, its demeaning, we have a whole genre of pornography devoted to each individual type of how a woman can be degraded.”


“There are so many examples of this, our world is becoming more and more removed from nature too, just look at how we’d rather watch TV and DVDs than play on a playground with other children.”


“I know, it’s getting crazy, I think that we could actually say porn is now totally mainstream too. It’s infecting how we talk and think about our world so much, look at how my daughter wants to dress, back in the day, she’d be considered a prostitute for what she wants to wear.”


“Something’s got to be done, before women are viewed solely as sex objects like they are in rap music today.”


“You know my mom was a feminist, hardcore one in the 60’s and 70’s, did a lot to speak out against the objectification of women.”


“Really, my family really didn’t, I have to admit, I’m pretty much the one who’s more adamant about philosophical or political issues.”



Are these two people ‘listening’ to each other? It may seem like they are since they say a lot of things like “Really?” “Something’s got to be done…” “I know,” or “I know, it’s getting crazy..” and stuff like that. 

Wow, aren’t these, really similar to saying things like: “Right,” “Exactly,” “I get you,”  and “No, I know exactly what you mean,” “Uh huh,” “Continue…”  and “Sure.”

But if someone says:

“Yeah, I know, more and more, we’re detached from the actual act of sex.”


To which the other responds with ‘feedback’ by saying…


“Well, in any case, its demeaning, we have a whole genre of pornography devoted to each individual type of how a woman can be degraded.”


This doesn’t mean they’ve heard you, it means they are changing the subject to say what they wanted to hear themselves say.


A proper response to:


“Yeah, I know, more and more, we’re detached from the actual act of sex.”


…with actual feedback would have been:


“I think that’s true, just look at how porn portrays people making love: they’re not even face to face half the time.”


It would then have been valid to bring up a new idea, usually its better if it relates and personally, in polite decorum, one apologizes in a mild degree and asks if they can change the subject. This is not simply a matter of respect for the other person, it allows for there to be a change of pace and a line that is drawn between subjects makes for better clarity.



But in this example, as it is, what is being produced through their interaction aside from their original opinions?


How about these two people?


Bill and Jenny are entering a carnival; the entirety of their date takes place inside the small amusement park. They now stand outside its gates waiting in line before a huge crowd to get tickets.



Bill: “Look at these people, their all just like us aren’t they? And yet, we’re miles apart.”


Jenny: “What do you mean?”


Bill: “We’ll even though I hate to be condescending or sound like I’m on a high horse, it’s just that you always get this sort of run of the mill crowd, the rank and file of every town in America or in the world.”


Jenny: “We’ll that’s for sure, nothing new about that.”


Bill: “I know, I know, its just that I notice certain things about people in general wherever I go, I tend to see the same kind of groups emerging.”


Jenny: “And what groups would those be?”


Bill: “Well, you’ve got every hick and redneck going to carnivals and movie theaters these days, you don’t see too many well-to-do’s at a place like this.”


Jenny: “Those are hardly more than vague categories, but I know what you mean, I wonder if that has anything to do with these being obsolete forms of entertainment, I mean, you have these huge sprawling amusement parks now, like Six Flags or Kings Dominion, and the movie’s are taken over by video, more specifically, DVD and even internet downloads now.”


Bill: “True, that’s probably the reason actually, I still think carnivals are a sort of weird place too, you know, sometimes I get the same sense at a movie theater, that ‘being-alone, but liking it’ feeling, you know?”



Notice something different with their interaction as opposed to the first one?


The difference in the second example, is that Bill and Jenny are COMMUNICATING. 


Their original opinions are being altered through comprehension and feedback.


In communication theory, two people are said to have communicated if and when something is relayed, encoded, and then translated. 



What good is it anyway to translate something in your head, and not tell the other person about it?  


And that is what I’m saying: that at best, people are just getting a general understanding or even just a ‘feel’ for what you’re saying most of the time. 


Ask them to tell you what they think you mean sometime out of the blue, and I almost guarantee you, you’ll catch em off guard.


And hence, most of the time, relationships between people resemble two people, living on two different islands, never having even interacted, though it might look like that’s what’s happening from afar.


I’ve come up with a list of principles, some of which have been covered here and others that are new. In any case, I think these embody the common denominators of all good, even minimal communication. 


They can all be observed even in the two examples given, but I assure you if you look at your life, you will find them effective, and you will be astounded at how little you and other people are actually listening to each other at present.


They are the following:

Objectivity: Truth vs. Falsehood: If you aren’t trying to establish the truth of a matter in mutual agreement, what are you trying to do? A conversation cannot be generated without objectivity, since there would be nothing to debate or seek: This means that the primary focus is to establish whether said idea(s) are true or false by means of rational argument.


Rational Argument: What good is talking if nothing is resolved or furthered? The technique of rational argument is a ‘back and forth’ whereby premises are met with objection, and objection is resolved rather than left alone. The process of listening, processing, giving feedback or your opinion about something is unfortunately more often met with another statement. This hardly ever gets anybody anywhere. Ask a question, you will get an answer, this will then enable you grounds for your idea to be integrated into the other person idea, or at the very least, you will be able to pinpoint where disagreement that can’t be resolved, lies, and take action accordingly.

Comprehension & Feedback: Actually listen to what someone says by thinking about what you think it means, to you, to them, and in general. Don’t merely think about it on a superfluous level either, depth is required to really understand, generate possibilities about what you think they mean and ask them if that is the case. Then, give them an integration of your opinion on the matter with theirs. If you disagree tell them why. (If you don’t want to do this, well, then I’m sorry, but you’re fucked and I don’t care about you anyway)

Item for Item Responses: A real discussion is an exchange, an intersection, not a parallel highway; meaning that each and every statement or question is met with feedback to that item as a proposition. The earmark of bad communication is skipping a person’s statement, which only breeds the downward spiral of misunderstanding which usually leads to all things counterproductive, i.e. force.


Questions or Inquiry: My Dad always said that if you aren’t asking a question within at least every 30 seconds of a conversation or debate, you’re losing it. How can you understand what a person is actually saying to you without asking them? The primary way people miscommunicate is probably through lack of asking questions. What ends up happening is that you take what you thought the person means by a given idea, instead of what THEY mean, and since more often than not, it is not identical and most often, totally not what the person meant, you might as well be talking to a gerbil, cat, or horse–all of whom at least won’t scream at you out of misunderstanding.

Skepticism, Delimitation, and Divergence: What good are ideas if you aren’t seeing both sides of the argument? This is a more specific extension of objectivity. We only know something is true, by means of isolating that that idea is X, meaning that there is no other possibility within the realm of what we know. This is tricky because what we know is always limited. This is the reason is so important to always be expanding one’s knowledge, which leads to the next principle: divergence—the constant generation of as many multiple possibilities as you can. Delimitation in its etymology, means to ‘set boundaries around.’ In the realm of ideas, this means that one sets boundaries by understanding what’s outside as well as inside the concept, such as opposing views and why that answer and some other answer is the correct one.

Reason for Claims: Each proposition bears the burden of proof before the next is presented: that is, each new idea must prove itself as valid by gathering facts to back it up within the current frame-work, at which point it is debated and resolved, before continuing. This means in a more specific way that each claim is backed up with a reason for said claim. ‘You know what I mean,’ is not and should never be a sufficient basis for true understanding and communication.



Retrieval-Integration of Past Topics: Old ideas are retrieved upon being relevant, not forgotten, and synthesized or integrated with new ones.



Integration: Each proposition (concept) builds upon the last. That is, the goal of any conceptual conversation is to build a framework of new ideas, which builds from older ideas.



If you have ‘listened’ to this, and are able to master these principles, I assure you, your life and you’re entire understanding of people will be radically transformed into a progressive rather than stagnant or static relationship, into understanding rather than miscommunication, learning in place of ignorance.

3 thoughts on “Listening

  1. The key to listening is mindfulness. How can we listen if our mind is pre-occupied? Mindfulness brings us back to the now and allows us to open. Your essay was informative- thank you for mastering this information. If you get a chance to read “Sole Food,” on my blog- this is another interpretation of how to learn to listen. Peace.

  2. Hey There!
    This is a fantastic, in-depth discussion piece regarding one of my biggest pet peeves. I can recall being extremely distraught when i realized as a much younger adult that ppl don’t often truly listen to one another…myself included on many occasions (unfortunately). it’s almost as if we’re conditioned to not have to listen to one another.

    i’m not usually one to enjoy or promote self help books or things of that sort, but if any of you haven’t read Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, this topic (essentially) is one of the habits of which he speaks; “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. real communciation can be a beautiful thing…imagine what our world could be like today if ppl really did try to understand someone else instead of railroading their agendas right through someone else’s thoughts?

  3. Reply to Sarah:

    Yes, its actually in just about eery self-help book there is out there, I do it in a more philosophical way bent on epistemology. If you haven’t ever read Nathaniel Branden, he’s pretty much the one (former Ayn Rand protege) who kicked off the whole self-esteem/self-help movement.

    Unfortunately I don’t see how too many people have really benefitted from it.

    I think as a result, and in response to what you’ve said, that people either choose one extreme or another: either they end up giving others too much credit, railroading themselves, or railroading others. People have got to learn that having a strong opinion isn’t bad, but you need to take in what others have said in tandem.

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