Communication | Personal development | Wellness

Quit talking. Start listening.

I took my first trip to Europe this summer. My family and I jetted across the pond and spent 11 days hop-scotching across the EU … or what’s left of it, anyway.

Our trip started in Dublin. We drank lots of Guinness. We toured Malahide Castle. We rang the bells at Christ Church Cathedral. Pretty cool place.

Our trip ended in Amsterdam. We toured the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum, with its Rembrandts and Van Goghs and Vermeers. We spent a great afternoon with family on the shores of the North Sea. It’s an amazing city.

In between, we hung out in London for a few days. If you've never been there, here's one thing to know about London: You can get lost in time while touring that city. The Tower of London dates to 1078. The Rosetta Stone — one of the most popular exhibits at The British Museum — dates to 196 BC … and it’s not even close to being the oldest item on exhibit there. As an American, I walked away from London with an entirely different perspective on what “old” means.

The coolest thing I saw there, though, was probably one of the youngest.

It was a work of art at the Tate Modern, one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the world. There, you'll find Picassos and Rothkos and Warhols.

But the best thing I saw was also one of the most unexpected.

Toward the back of the museum, you'll turn a corner and enter a room devoted entirely to a single work of art — a sculpture, for lack of a better term, titled “Babel 2001,” by Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles.

It's a circular tower of sorts, rising at least 30 feet into the air. It's constructed of hundreds of radios, each tuned into a different station.

The noise is incredible, and chaotic, and indecipherable. It is, as the Tate Modern describes, "a cacophony of low, continuous sound, resulting in inaccessible information."


It doesn't sound like something you'd want to spend a lot time contemplating, does it? But then I read the description of the work, and I was blown away. That description reads as follows:

"The installation manifests, quite literally, a Tower of Babel, relating it to the biblical story of a tower tall enough to reach the heavens, which, offending God, caused him to make the builders speak in different tongues. Their inability to communicate with one another caused them to become divided and scatter across the earth and, moreover, became the source of all of mankind’s conflicts."

It's the perfect analogy for our world today — so many people shouting at one another from so many different platforms, and we can't understand any of it. We can't communicate because we can't hear each other over the noise each of us is creating.

If only we could stop shouting ... and start listening.

Most of us equate hearing with listening. They're not the same at all. Here's how the folks at Harvard Business Review define good listening:

  • "Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight."
  • "Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners make the conversation a positive experience for the other party. ... Good listening is characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly."
  • "Good listening is seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flows smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners are seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response."
  • "Good listeners tend to make suggestions. Good listening invariably includes some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider."

Are you doing those things? Think, for example, of how you use social media. Are you asking questions that promote discovery and insight? Are you building the other person's self esteem, or participating in a cooperative conversations? Are you making constructive suggestions?

Or are you merely shouting your opinions and shutting down anyone who doesn't agree with you?

I've been guilty of doing that. We all have. And we need to stop. We need to stop shouting and start hearing. Actually, forget hearing ... we need to start listening.

  • "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." — Stephen R. Covey
  • “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” — Harper Lee
  • "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." — Ernest Hemingway

There's a lot of noise in our world today. We're guilty of creating most of it.

The solution is simple: Shut up. Most people you know have a lot of extraordinary things to say. The key is taking the time to hear those things, and to understand.

If we don't?

The noise will be incredible ... and unbearable.


William D. Sheridan