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One competency that people often lack is the ability to listen. I recall as a husband and as a school pupil the accusation that ‘you never listen’, but I don’t recall the lessons in listening that accompanied literacy and numeracy. Do you? Do you remember being taught attention management as a listener rather than as a teacher? Nope? Me neither.

Listening is a skill. The ability to not just hear what is being said, but also to see how it is being said and to understand why it is being said are the three elements of good listening. They are summarised in the expression that good listening requires HEART – an ART of using the EAR to HEAR what’s in the HEART. Yes, I know – ouch. Yet perfectly apt.

The ability to truly understand through listening is therefore a competence, one that can be studied, learned and finally applied. But all of that competence requires something else, something that underpins all learning.


Not just discipline required to apply oneself to the learning of the competence, though. That’s only half the story.

Discipline is also required to actually apply that learned skill at the appropriate moment. It means pausing in the gap between hearing someone say, “I want to tell you something” and the knee-jerk “Not now, I’m busy” which we tend to apply.

Not as easy as learning about how to listen, I’m afraid. We all live in our own world, and other people’s need to intrude upon our inner peace (i.e. while watching Line of Duty) tends to lie secondary to what we have ‘going on’ in our own heads. It takes discipline to decide to be present for another person. Until that discipline can be applied, all the listening training in the world won’t make you a great listener.

It’s easier to pause and listen to someone important to you in an intimate sense – immediate family, best friends, and so on. It’s also arguably easier to listen at a time of crisis, because the crisis is salient, it’s ‘in yer face’ and can’t be avoided.

But there are times when someone needs to be heard, but there is no obvious sense of urgency and so the moment is missed because the intended listener hasn’t developed the skill, and discipline, to be (a) willing to listen and (b) able to see that listening is needed now.

Next time someone seeks to attract your attention, pause and ask yourself – am I ready and willing to take the time to understand why this person wants me at this moment? That pause will inevitably result in better communication, even if the result is to arrange a better time for the conversation – the individual knows they have been and will be heard if the counsellor actively acknowledges that there is a conversation required.

Not easy.

But try.