“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking” ~ B.M. Baruch
“If you already know what’s being said, you’re probably not listening” ~ Imisi
Hi, and welcome back to De-Me-Stified. These are rather sombre times, such as many of us have never witnessed before. So, respect to the dead, strength to the grieving and grace to the living as we make sense of the situation.
Courtesy of the times, it’s easy to find ourselves re-evaluating our priorities and returning to the very basics. All of a sudden, things we once fussed over now seem markedly unimportant – if we could just stay healthy and connected to loved ones.
In the same spirit, I thought we’d look at something fairly basic; so basic, in fact, that we all do it without much thought. My hope is that by painting in the right colours, we could learn to be more deliberate – and eventually better – with it.
A certain lecturer walked in one day, back in uni, and suddenly called for a test. Back then, even tests you prepared well for had ways of springing nasty surprising. This one was impromptu; so we were definitely up against it.
The allotted time seemed grossly inadequate, but the questions themselves didn’t appear too troublesome. It must have been a trade-off, then: work quickly – and you may yet stand a chance. There was just one more little thing. Nested somewhere within the instructions were the words “write only your name”. It was too late by the time we realised.
We were too busy trying to recall and deploy complex formulae to realise that what was required of us was the one thing that didn’t involve any thinking. The lesson of that day has stuck with me ever since, reminding me of the basics without which we’d always be left wondering what could have been.
Every now and then, I cast my mind back to the events leading up to March 9 1997, trying to make sense of the actors and their choices; a story that does my head in every single time.
It was just past midnight, and partygoers had been exiting the venue of an industry party when multiple shots rang out. The Notorious BIG had been critically shot. Confused and desperate, his entourage raced him to the emergency wing of the Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
Unfortunately, much as they tried, doctors could not save his life. Biggie was pronounced dead; the second murder of a high-profile rapper in six short months. It stung like a body blow, and the hip-hop community was thrown into mourning. However, while the world grappled with shock and sorrow, his entourage could only be sorrowful. They really could not be shocked.
You see, they had been warned – repeatedly, and in vivid detail. They even knew when the attack was to happen. A bodyguard in their employ had received very clear intel from trusted sources, and had said as much. Legendary street icon, J Prince, had also gone out of his way to warn the rapper and his handlers about the immense danger they were in.
They heard; just as America had heard about an impending attack on Pearl Harbour, and Israel about an attack from Egypt. They all heard; they just had not really learnt to make sense of what was being said.
After a lengthy stream of false-positives, how could America and Israel have known that those last reports were for real? Would Biggie still have attended that party if he knew the warnings weren’t just symptoms of paranoia? We may never know for sure. What we do know is that the universe is rather lousy at keeping its plans secret. Everything is foretold; so, nothing ever just happens. We merely have to tune in and pay attention.
Because there always seems to be more praise for grand delivery than quiet assimilation, our values and efforts seem skewed in that direction. But this is, at best, a mirage. Events of the past few months tell us as much.
Imagine how different today would be if those in authority had listened to those who should know (virologists, intelligence officers, etc); or if those who thought they knew (religious leaders, neighbourhood influencers, etc) had simply listened to those in authority. Maybe the outbreak could have been prevented altogether, or its scale and reach significantly attenuated. Alas, here we are.
This is not to say listening is easy; it’s not. It is counter-intuitive, flying in the face of our validation-seeking instincts. It is also logistically complex; an effective dose being before, during and after. Unfortunately, it’s just not one of those things that can be worked around. Think of it like you would a corporate presentation: imagine not taking a moment to digest your topic beforehand. Picture yourself not scanning the audience for clues as you deliver it. Suppose also that you wrap it all up without waiting for feedback. How effective do you think that would be?
Still, arguably the biggest reason why listening feels so hard is because it requires us to place others before and above ourselves. That is, before launching that ‘life-changing invention’, taking a moment to confer with its target audience. Or, that we pause to ponder the trainings and powers available to that customer care rep we’re about to berate.
We’re wired to think this somehow detracts from our excellence or legitimacy (when quite the opposite holds true). We think it makes us seem weak or small. In our mind’s eye, we’re the sun around which all else revolves. So, we charge ahead like we’ve got it all figured out.
And that’s exactly how things go sideways. That’s how my entire class (save a handful) got undone by an otherwise simple test. That’s how the Broughton Bridge fell apart and threw a brigade of soldiers in the water. That’s generally how people get hurt (in relationships and lots of other ventures).
Then again, maybe it’s a question of perspective. A little confidence can’t hurt, right? But what we think is innocent confidence, could very easily present as disregard and arrogance (because it seems to suggest that what little we know is all there is to it). The universe, as we now clearly see, can sometimes be unforgiving.
Listening is hard enough as it is. It’s complex, seemingly uncelebrated, time-consuming, and requires a perspective that doesn’t come naturally to us. To make it harder, we often don’t even know what we should be listening to. It’ll be a lot easier if humans were all one had to listen to, but patterns and trends, seasons, gut-feelings, random ideas, ‘anonymous tips’, energy, etc; all speak just as loudly, and often with greater impact. Ignoring these is the equivalent of taking a toothpick to a gun fight. It simply cannot end well.
Listening is almost like a superpower, when you think about it. In a comic world of superheroes, it’ll be that power that no one really wants, but which is able to bring everything else together. It may not completely isolate us from life’s many shocks, but when used right, those shocks would eventually become exemptions, not the norm.
They say the world’s biggest con is the devil convincing us that he doesn’t exist. I reckon the second would be confusing hearing with listening – almost like seeing and perceiving. While our ears are biologically perfect for hearing, the best they can detect in an ocean of information is the tip of an iceberg. We’re going to need our eyes, nose, skin, tongue, heart, gut, head and every other thing we’ve got to even stand a chance. That way, we can see further into the future, avoiding what we can and bracing when we can’t.