Listening in the 21st Century: With ears wide open, but the mind quite shut

By Ananya Mahapatra. Ananya is a psychiatrist from New Delhi, India. Please read her entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

The past fifty decades have witnessed unprecedented technological advancement and innovation. From mapping the variegated terrains of our planet through the distant relentless scrutiny of satellites to the mind-boggling array of digital communication channels, we have come a long way. The medusa-head of the internet has cast its tentacles all over the planet and squeezed it to the size of a tennis ball. The remotest corner of the world is merely a mouse-click away. The planet has shrunk well enough to fit into the palm of our hands.

We live in the glorious Age of Communication or so we like to believe. Over voices ride pillion on the quick and efficient mobile networks and float across continents and oceans. Distances which once appeared limitless are covered in mere seconds. From Colombo to California, from Greenland to Galapagos, we are all inexorably connected.

Communication engenders conversations, and today we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices. Loud and enthusiastic, eloquent and at times boisterous. Whether it’s the rarefied and personal space of your office-party or the vast indiscriminate arena of social media, we are all the time surrounded by voices, opinions, and thoughts expounded with enthusiasm, vehemence and at times abrupt violence.

Conversations are two-way streets. The interlocutor spurs you into action-To think, to process and rationalize your thoughts with great deliberation so that you can come up with an appropriate reply. However, when we are surrounded by a frenzy of conversations, stretched in different directions, demanding our attention, the need to reply and make our own voice heard becomes the imperative impulse. This impulse has come to define our present generation. We, the restless denizens of this Age of Communication are not given to contemplation. We live a busy life which moves at an unforgiving pace. We don’t have the luxury to chew upon words, to reflect and reminisce, savor new thoughts, grapple with them. A voice demands the voice in us, and we most willingly jump at the cue. We listen with our ears wide open, but our minds are starkly shut. That is because, our primary impulse is to reply first, understand later or maybe not at all, it is hardly considered important.

Social communication demands empathy and in our frenzied urge to make our voices heard, we often skip the fine art of stepping into someone’s shoes altogether. When someone is stating their opinion, we immediately sit up straight with our own opinion, whether compliant or contradictory. There used to be a vital step in between those two action actions of listening to someone speak and speaking ourselves. It comprised of the simple gesture of giving salience to the words being spoken to us, to imagine the perspective from which they were spoken, to weigh its different facets and comprehend the meaning of it.

Have you watched news debates on the television and felt that the speakers seated in the show are speaking to invisible walls rather than themselves. They holler at each other at the top of their voices, without pondering even for a minute upon the words spoken by the others. And at the end of it, we are left with no clear conclusions and a splitting headache.

We all have different political opinions; we hold differing philosophical positions, we believe in different moral precepts and so on. The moment we listen to a person holding an opposite view, we gear up our ammo, rally our defenses to hurl back at him a befitting counter-attack. This creates a conversational combat zone, where everyone is rallying for his or her positions, trying to drown out the dissenters, because the loudest of all wins. Our eagerness to reply, to put forth our opinion supersedes any possibility of understanding or appreciating what is said to us. This is the harbinger of prejudice and misconceptions, miscommunication and mistrust which compounds all our problems.

We live in the Age of Communication, but our conversations have become banal, at times belligerent, because we have gradually and succinctly leached out the spirit of listening with empathy.

It’s time to unlearn this impulse. It is time to open our minds so that the thoughts carried by other people’s voices incite us to think first, to understand and develop worldviews from multiple perspectives before we reply. It only takes a moment to reflect, to sit back and observe the words thrown at us, before we gather words to speak ourselves and that makes all the difference. It suffuses a lease of new life into interactions; it breaks the invisible walls that we have created around ourselves. It dispels myths and dissipates paranoia. It opens new vistas, generates innovations and lights up the dark recesses of our minds. Most importantly it winnows out the seeds of miscommunication and mistrust.

We, the techno freaks of the 21st century, are in a constant state of communication. Through mobile and social media networks we remain connected with colleagues, friends and family and the entire world in general. It is therefore imperative to replace our impulse to reply with an effort to understand. Only then will the discordant buzz of voices all around transform into a coherent symphony, and we as global citizens will sway to its rhythm. Only then will the vision of a try connected world be fulfilled.

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