Hearing or listening?

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How well do you listen?

People like to think that they listen. But do they really? Listening may sound quite straightforward, but people are often very self-absorbed. They do not really listen. Instead of paying attention, they talk. Their awareness is selective.

Are you just hearing?

Instead of listening, people are often distracted, filtering what they hear, judging, daydreaming, fidgeting or rehearsing what they are going to say next.
Impatience, selfishness and greed make people restless and bored. Hearing is easy but listening is a skill.

Awareness is like living with a snake in the room;
you watch its every movement,
you are very, very sensitive to the slightest sound it makes.


Calm and quiet inside

Listening takes composure. You need to be quiet inside. Receptive. Open. Flexible. You need to pay full attention and not get distracted. Humility and patience are paramount.
Wait. Allow the other person to say what it is they wish to convey...  

Poor attention span

Technology has shaped consciousness. People have become an easily distracted society with very short attention spans.
Stagnation, intellectual decline and an increase in apathy are the unfortunate side-effects of a reduced capacity to pay attention.

What about me?

People usually pay attention relative to their own agenda. If something pertains directly to their life, their interests, their self-image - then they pay greater attention.

How noisy is it inside your head

Some people actually talk inside their heads... Instead of paying attention to what is being said, they talk to themselves.
It is not possible to be fully conscious of the moment and whilst there are verbalised thoughts chattering away in your head.


Try working with somebody who is not fully present... They seem distracted, slow, listless. Not attentive. They have difficulty following a line of reasoning or a train of thought.
They are not really listening to what is being said. There is a certain vacancy in their eyes. Or a look of inward anxiety; a deeply neurotic urgency of purpose.

The root of ignorance itself is our mind’s habitual tendency to distraction.

 (Sogyal Rinpoche)


Consider this: a tai chi teacher offers their lesson and the student interprets the teaching in terms of themselves. They decide what to listen to. What to ignore. What to prioritise.
This is foolish. It actively impedes learning. How can a student - with no grasp of the curriculum - possibly determine what is important and what is not?

Spacing out

Modern people are seldom fully present. They often try to 'multi-task'. Even when there are no obvious, visible distractions, they somehow manage to be elsewhere.
They are lost in thought, talking inwardly, problem solving, spacing out or otherwise distracting themselves.
A listless mind struggles to learn. It drifts, daydreams and fails to engage with what is occurring.


Somebody who isn't really listening makes a lot of mistakes. Instead of giving the teacher/the lesson their full attention, they are only partially listening.
The student is very hard to teach. They make the exact same mistakes again and again and again. Nothing is being learned from the mistakes because they aren't really paying attention.
Similarly, important corrections are wasted, since the student doesn't implement them or really recall what they were.

Poor memory?

A lot of adults worry about problems with their memory. But is there really a problem with the memory itself? Perhaps the issue is the habit of poor attention.
If you expose yourself to gossip, trivia and information that has absolutely no bearing on your day-to-day life, your mind will be noisy. It is filled with clutter.
Worrying, watching the clock or thinking about something else is not going to help you remember things too well.
Think about it... if you aren't even listening or you are daydreaming, what exactly are you trying to remember at a later date? The activity itself, the train of thought or the daydream?


People often enter situations with a preconception of what is going to take place. They are waiting to have their expectations fulfilled.
But, if you begin with a conclusion, there is no investigation, no discovery, no learning. To think that you have all the answers is to operate within the field of the known, the past, the old.
This is not 'open' to new ideas, insights, perspectives or perceptions. It is not even intelligent. It is simplistic, arrogant and self-serving. It stops you from really listening.

He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.

(Charles Dickens)

Hearing what you want to hear...

Sometimes people ignore what they don't agree with or don't want to listen to. This is naive. And ignorant.
A good example is
Dr Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die) recommends 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
How many people read Dr Greger's expert advice and immediately dismiss it?

Are you personally an expert?

It is wise to consider the origin of Dr Greger's advice. He's not saying it to be bossy or unreasonable. His insight is the outcome of many years of professional research, exploration and study.
His suggestion echoes what
three doctors wrote in The Okinawa Program after an exhaustive 25 years of study and practical research.
Now ask yourself a single important question: given that four doctors are giving professional advice backed up by many years of experience, who are you to simply dismiss it? And on what grounds?
Have you any professional, provable basis to debunk these doctors?


Conversation is a skill. It serves to convey thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions. It can educate, seduce, entertain or amuse. Words are ambiguous and deceptive, playful and interesting.
We are free to explore nuance and meaning. Given the opportunity for wit and humour, it seems sad to squander it by not actually listening. How are we hoping to interact with the other person?


Learning requires sustained attention. When the mind begins to settle, reality begins to seem a whole lot more interesting. The need for outside entertainment decreases.
Simple, everyday things become curious. We realise how little we know, how limited our understanding.
Instead of seeking answers far and wide, we look closer. We go deeper.
We also begin to see what is right there on the surface, right in front of us. We actually listen to what is being said.

Active listening skills

Listening skills are quite easy to cultivate. It just takes a little practice:

  1. Eyes looking at the person talking to you

  2. Mouth closed

  3. Hands relaxed and still

  4. Feet relaxed and still

  5. Don't interpret, analyse or filter

  6. Aim to avoid judging, stereotyping, rehearsing, distractions, preconceptions and daydreaming

  7. Focus exclusively upon what is being said

  8. Pay attention to the emotional tone

  9. Listen for the purpose, the message, facts, references, ideas and instructions

Once the person has finished speaking, determine what sort of reply is appropriate or necessary.

Listen rather than question

Often tai chi students ask too many questions. If they had listened properly in the first place, they would realise that they already possess the answer.
Their own impatience and inattentiveness impede learning. Rather than listen, they are merely waiting for the opportunity to say something.  
The student fails to see the nature of their folly: they have paid to be taught and are wasting that opportunity by talking rather than listening.
Also, the smarter student would want to discover the answer for themselves.

The road to the precious capital is not for the inattentive.

(Loy Ching Yuen)

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Page created 1 August 1998
Last updated 16 June 2023