“You have two ears and one mouth. Remember to use them in more or less that proportion.”

That was the advice I received from a communications expert last week, which got me thinking about listening. It’s not something that most of us are good at. Even those of us who write for a living and are supposed to understand how to do an interview and listen, often get it wrong and miss rule 2: “Don’t interrupt or try to finish other people’s sentences” and 3: “Focus fully on the person speaking rather than focusing on your next comment.”

In the Financial Times, columnist Simon Kuper notes that it’s an incredibly important social skill:

A woman I know who does online dating says she is often baffled by the seduction techniques of the men she meets. In person, most just boast to her at great lengths. Few of them stumble on the winning formula: Ask her about herself and actually listen.

Kuper goes on to note that “most people do have something worth saying, if only you can help them say it.” I found this out recently after following that communications expert’s advice. I was part of a group lobbying politicians about the importance of old buildings and main streets. One conservative gentleman representing a very large riding made up of small towns complained that he had a real problem in one town because the main street was too narrow and there wasn’t enough parking and there was no room to widen the roads, which is exactly the kind of thing that our organization fights tooth and nail; we want walkable streets, not parking spaces. Instead of arguing the point, I just shut up for a change and let him talk; before our time was up he was describing how his son is a carpenter restoring a church, and how important building preservation was to him and his family. Had I not sat on my hands and studiously practiced listening, we might have left his office on very different terms.

Watching the American election unfold, one wonders if anyone is listening to anyone anymore. Everybody is screaming soundbites as loudly as they can; that’s probably because our attention spans are so short these days. Microsoft Canada did a study and found that “the average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds; by 2013 it was 8 seconds, (one second shorter than a goldfish!)”

Also screaming, rather than listening, seems to be considered a virtue; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained on Fox News that under the current administration, “What we’re seeing is that when the United States steps back and speaks softly, nobody listens.”

And it clearly works, given that the loudest screamer saying the most outrageous things is the current front-runner.

dalai lamaThis guy knows what he's talking about. (Photo: Higher Perspective)

It has taken me a very long time to learn how to listen. I suspect I might have been a more successful architect had I listened to clients instead of telling them what I thought they wanted. Now that I write and teach, I have to force myself to listen to the people I'm writing about and to the students whom I have to grade. The exciting thing about it it is how much I'm learning in the process. This Dalai Lama guy knows a thing or two.

I have written often about how important hearing is to our connection with others, and what a difference my hearables have made in my life. But hearing is different from listening, and, interestingly, there isn’t any hardware that can help you listen; you just have to sit down, shut up and do it.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.