Are You Listening?

Reconsidering the art of communication

By Abbey Lew; illustration by Kelsey Skordal

What kind of world would it be if everyone talked and no one listened? A dysfunctional one, to say the least. Listening is essential to understanding. Without it, words would have no purpose, communication would be lost and the world would be filled with nothing but meaningless chatter. So why is listening underrated? As a society, we have created the expectation that we must all speak up to be heard and acknowledged. Although this is true at times, we have forgotten that listening is an equally important trait.

I like to think of college as both the most social and lonely periods of our life. As a college community, we are very connected, yet we are all obviously very independent of one another. We are often around people so much that we feel lonelier when by ourselves. Some of us crave this alone time, others tend to limit it. Sometimes this is a personal choice, but sometimes it is because of the pressure many of us feel to be social.

Since coming to college, I’ve learned the term “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.” But don’t we all have our own definitions of “missing out?” Some people kick themselves for not going out to a party, while others regret that they didn’t stay in and watch a movie with friends. Either way, this obligation to be social and talkative has inhibited our ability to listen to what we’d really prefer to be doing.

When I was a kid, I went on many hikes with my family. Living in the Berkeley Hills of California gave us easy access to the hundreds of trails within Tilden Park. There was a time I accidentally ran into poison ivy, a time my brother’s shoe got stuck in the mud and a time we found a black and white banana slug. Ironically, what continues to stand out from these family hikes the most is silence. 

Halfway through each hike, my dad would make us stop to “just listen.” And, for several silent minutes, we listened. Eventually one of us would break the silence: “I don’t hear anything.” And my dad would smile and reply, “Exactly. Isn’t that cool?” To this day, I always take the time to listen. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful sound of pure silence.

In college, that pure silence is hard to come by. Everyone always seems to be on on their way to another practice, meeting or lecture. Over-scheduling is a common theme. We’ve all committed ourselves to so many activities that there is barely enough time for ourselves. This over-scheduling translates to our conversations. When there is free time or silence, people feel uncomfortable and often feel the need to fill that void. 

Having the time to be introspective and quiet is necessary to the well-being of ourselves and others. Our overbooked lives would be so much simpler if we just listened to what we really want to do. I see many of my friends complain about their involvement in activities that they don’t actually feel passionate about.  If that's the case, what’s the point in staying involved? We do so because we feel the need to prove ourselves. We feel the pressure to show just how energetic, busy and active we can be. 

Alone time is stigmatized, especially in college, where wanting time to one’s self can come off as antisocial or reclusive. But with so many rapid changes and nonstop movement, moments of contemplation should be valued. When I’m by myself, I can think more clearly. And when life becomes confusing and overwhelming, I use that time to sort things out in my mind. I’m also more productive since I’m not hindered by the pressure to contribute to conversations. Why don’t you speak up more? Do you have anything to say? These are questions I’ve often been asked by teachers, students, family and friends.

I know how to talk, and I will say something when I need to say it, but most of time I prefer to listen. Must I be the loudest to be heard? To this day, I still don’t know what the perfect solution is. Maybe there isn’t one.

Sometimes, listening speaks louder. People can finally realize what they’ve been trying to hear without the white noise of chatter. Maybe the reason why silence stands out to me is because there is simply not enough of it.

Obviously not all of us can be listeners, just as not all of us can be talkers. We are independent of each other. We both need the other to thrive. Yet everyone can benefit from a little more solitude. Whether it’s quietly listening to a friend, settling down with a good book or just setting aside time to think and reflect, we all need time to listen to ourselves. Respect the solitude of others, embrace it yourself and just listen.