Have you been listening?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 March, 2004, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government is often damned for its inability or unwillingness to seriously consider dissenting viewpoints. A rash of protests would suggest that many citizens continue to feel that they are not being heard. It takes skill to lend a good ear, however - an ability that is surprisingly rare.

In the private domain, most of the listening that people do is fairly inattentive. Typical conversations are more like alternating bouts of speaking than genuine dialogue. The conversational floor is taken and relinquished using subtle but fairly strict rules of conduct. Turns are 'bid for' and yielded using flurries of body language such as increasingly rapid head nods and directed gaze. It is extraordinary to watch the exhibition of unconscious co-operation once one has been made aware of it.

In most situations, that is what both parties expect and want. But when decision-makers such as government officials listen, they do so in atypical circumstances. The subjects are generally weightier and exchanges are in formalised and hurried contexts. The exchange tends to be unsuccessful unless the interlocutor is made to feel that they are genuinely heard, that the listening is active, and therefore, meaningful.

When a figurehead like the queen goes walkabout, the chat is largely content-free. For the crowd, it is not what is said that is important. It is the fact that a conversation took place at all. The queen usually asks a friendly question or two and she listens to answers that are often brief or lame, due to nerves. When the entourage and cameras move on, most individuals who were singled out are left with only a hazy idea of what they said. But few will ever forget the exchange. There is little in the way of empathetic, binding pride that cannot be attained by being listened to for a second or two in the loftiest conversational space in the realm.

But when concerned individuals in a crowd get a chance to talk to someone who yields power over their lives, they can be more in the mood to challenge power than to identify with it. For the most part, they are seeking confirmation that their views are, first, understood and second, accepted as valid. If a VIP can achieve both of these in his or her reply, they are made.

Even replies that directly address an issue are less important. What is vital is that the message is seen to have 'got through'. After all, there are few occasions in which anyone reasonable expects an issue to be resolved right there and then, and it is usually a bad idea to enter into spontaneous, detailed discussions.

Effective leaders are bombarded with opinions from the public and the electorate. So they tend to have a collection of stock phrases to deflect the demand on their attention. This does not necessarily mean they are insincere. Such a strategy is more or less forced upon them to avoid overload. However, their range of phrases does reveal quite a lot about their 'public listening position'.

'I will take your view into consideration' as an initial response, though perhaps well meant, is a rather detached reply. It stresses the power and status differential between speaker and listener and sidesteps the crucial issue of validation. The speaker is likely to end up thinking: 'Wait a minute, did he actually hear and understand what my view was?' Indicative of a more engaged approach and less patronising is: 'I see what you mean' or simply 'I understand' - providing it is true, of course.

Public or authority figures are subjected to more than their fair share of deliberately argumentative verbal assaults. Consequently, they tend to get into the habit of being either dismissive or defensive in their dealings with people. Between the options of dismissiveness and defensiveness, the former is the lesser political evil, so it is widely adopted. But in fact, both indicate a poor listening position.

Sometimes a greater level of attentiveness is merited than can be communicated by empathetic responses. The best listeners ask for more information. A great way to do this is for the listener to reply using some of the words used by the speaker. Or better still, to paraphrase the key idea expressed. This is a golden rule for excellent listening, claims former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman.

This is not a spin doctor's remedy for awkward exchanges. Repeating or paraphrasing key parts of an interlocutor's side of the conversation actually forces the listener to stay attentive - an invaluable skill for any high-powered individual.

I hope you will take this view into consideration.