Are You Listening?  Really?

By Shlomo Maital    

  Are you listening?  To the person with whom you are speaking?


  Media all over the world have reported on massive demonstrations in Israel, protesting anti-democratic legislation by a far-right coalition government driven by vengeance.

     Watching TV news for the past three months has been torture.  Panels of experts scream at each other —  for balance, of course left and right are present – and do their best to shout over the words of their counterparts, lest the TV audience hear what they have to say.  Even in good times, we Israelis rarely let our counterparts finish a sentence before busting in.

   But lately?  Mutual deafness. 

    I found an old (2004) TED talk by the Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi.  He is the author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which brings the words of 100 creative people who describe the experience of full immersion in writing music, words, or painting. “The ego falls away, time flies…your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  He dubbed this “flow”.

   According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, one’s mind can “attend to 110 bits of information per second!”.   Per second!  That means – if we are listening, really listening, we can absorb a huge amount of information.

   But here’s the catch.  “Decoding speech takes about 40-60 bits of information per second.”  That is, simply translating the words we hear to a form the brain can comprehend. 

    That means, only about half of our ability to comprehend what we are hearing, say 50 bits per second, remains for processing what we hear – comprehending, analyzing, thinking, feeling.

     Provided we are really listening.

      But are we?

      We Israelis seem to invest processing ability in two things.  First, yelling and screaming over the words of our counterpart.  Second, thinking about our own responses to the silly nonsense our counterpart is saying – which we barely bother to try to comprehend. 

      No processing ability is left to listen, comprehend, ponder, process, and absorb. 

       There is no dialog.  There is only debate.  Only one side in our brains – our own. 

        I have had foreign visitors who have asked me, during their stay in Israel:  Do you Israelis really dislike one another? 

         I have to explain, embarrassedly, no, we actually do like one another, but our culture does not include listening to one another. 

          Maybe we Israelis are not alone.   Do Republicans and Democrats really listen to one another in the US? 

           I can’t do much to change Israel’s culture of mutual deafness.  But as an individual, I can personally try harder to listen to the person with whom I am speaking, let them finish their thoughts and sentences, think about what they are saying, listen carefully to it,  and do my best to engage in a productive dialogue, which is characterized by mutual respect and consideration.  

         Not only is this morally right. It is in our self-interest.  Because if you do not, cannot, listen to others, you are losing the chance to learn great things every single hour of the day.

         When we truly open our ears, only then do we really open our minds.  And there is nothing desirable or useful about a closed mind.