Lesson Number Two

Hearing is not listening.

Emma and Luis had already taught me a valuable lesson.

Emma announced that much of the time, Luis did not seem to hear what she said. Immediately, Luis turned towards me, incensed: “Of course I hear what she says.

Is it possible that both of them are telling the absolute truth? What if Emma had clear evidence that Luis did not hear her, but Luis had equally clear evidence he had? Before trying to work out the path through this apparent contradiction, there is one principle that I have picked up. Quite often, both parties are telling the truth – even if both present entirely different and contradictory versions of events!

This is succinctly exemplified by the Rashomon effect. Rashomon, a 1950s Japanese psychological thriller, portrayed events immediately leading up to a murder through the eyes of four witnesses, including the murderer and the victim (admittedly the victim’s recitative arrived through the notoriously unreliable medium of, well, a medium). Each of the versions was accurate – but all were contradictory to the point of total incompatibility. Sitting opposite couples giving very different reports of the same event long ago taught me that, in most cases, the basis for the disagreement is different translations of the same word. In this case the word ‘hear’ was the culprit. I went back to a dictionary.

Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear…..hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.

Hearing vs. Listening, University of Minnesota Duluth

Luis was indeed hearing. What he wasn’t doing was listening. The word ‘listen’ descends from the Middle English word listenen, meaning ‘alteration’! So, listening implies altering or change. If someone were actually listening, they would be changing in response to the input. So, Emma had absolute evidence that Luis wasn’t listening – though he was hearing. How did she know? Nothing was changing! So, teaching couples to listen to each other is a big part of what I do.

The exercise, therefore, is ‘Tell me, from what you have heard, what is it that your partner asking you to do?’

Names have been changed.