Speaking Well Involves Listening Well First

When we think about eloquence, our thoughts immediately turn to speaking well. And then we are inclined to believe that the eloquent person is just someone who has learned how to say the right thing. Then, should we ourselves wish to become eloquent like him, we would doubtless pour ourselves into practicing saying the right thing, thinking that this is what should be at the heart of our training.

It turns out that eloquence is born not out of speaking but out of listening. Quite naturally, there is a difference between hearing and listening and another difference between listening and listening well. An eloquent person has learned to say the right thing by virtue of listening well.

Take the difference between hearing and listening first: someone may hear noises in the street but not listen to such noises. Such noises remain in the background while someone listens to his friend about the latter’s troubles at work. Even though one cannot listen without hearing, listening is “intentional”: my attention is directed at what you are saying, my ears are “inclined” in your direction.

Take, secondly, the difference between listening and listening well. We listen well only when (a) our attention is one-pointed and our mind clear (so, our attention does not wander off onto other subjects), (b) we’re able to follow along, and (c) we’re able to make deductions from the said to the unsaid. Those who don’t listen well wander off, don’t follow along, and don’t make deductions.

Listening well, therefore, requires quite a high level of active responsiveness to the other, particularly to her words but also to her mannerisms and body language. And the larger assumption I am making is that one cannot listen excellently so long as one is self-centered. A clear mind means that one’s interests and concerns play, at best, only a very small part in what is transpiring between the speaker and you. Not being self-centered, you can seek understanding through listening for understanding–not manipulation, not steering–is the chief aim.

The paradoxical truth now appears: the eloquent person has become so less by spending countless hours saying the right thing and more so by spending countless hours learning to listen well. For out of listening well the right words–few, choice, apt–come forth.