The Art of Listening

A customer walked into McDonald’s and said, “One large fries to go, please!”

” Would you like fries with that?” John, the customer service guy, gave a quick automatic response.

“I just asked for fries only.”

“Oh, sorry about that. Would you like to upgrade?”

“But, I already ordered large fries.”

“Of course! Dine in or take-away…?”

The customer looked askance.

I find this incident funny every time I recall it. However, this story underscores something profound in the present age. Transactions happening in milliseconds, be that loading a webpage, response from ATM machines, text messages, responding to emails, staying in touch using your smart phones, have made a somewhat adverse impact on human concentration and patience.

As soon as an email hits your inbox, it is sealed with the expectation of getting a prompt response back. Plus, if the sender knows you have a blackberry, you are expected to respond back in seconds. Technological advances are not bad, they may perhaps even be necessary. They certainly do have a great upside. But, they have also robbed us off our time, time to think, time to contemplate, to cogitate, to plan. They do not give one the time to listen.

This is what I intend to cover briefly today — listening. It seems most are talking, some are hearing but only very few are listening. Listening is an art. It is easy to listen to the subject matter when you are interested in the topic. But sometimes, for example, at work, it can be a great deal more important to listen attentively even when you are not interested in the subject matter. Your performance, your decisions, your job may well depend on it.

Many people are just waiting for the speaker to finish her part so they can begin theirs. They are not actually listening, they are simply pretending they are. Good listening requires concentration. So, are you a good listener? Here is a little exercise for you to help you see where you stand, follow the steps below:

1. Put on your earphones and turn on your mp3 player.

2. Play your favorite song, ideally below five minutes in length.

3. Listen to every single word in the song, every single beat in the music.

Did you hear every word or did you find yourself wandering off into your world of thoughts after the first few lines? An overwhelming majority is unable to fully listen to a song of even three minutes.

Try the above again, promising yourself that you will listen to the whole song no matter what, that, for the whole time you will focus your attention undividedly on the song and nothing else.

Interestingly, you will find that even after your determined resolve, your mind still wanders off. However, with practice one can become an excellent listener. Those who are good at listening are often good at managing relationships, both personal and professional.

Yogic texts lay great importance on mastering the skill of listening. A while ago I wrote a post on the subject, you may want to read it.

An apt anecdote comes to my mind to end this article:

A man approached Buddha once and said, “I want to become wise. Please tell me how do I operate better in the world? What do I do to not mess my relationships?”

Buddha spoke, “It is very simple. You only have to be mindful of two things: Listen attentively to others when they are talking and even more attentively to yourself when you are talking.”

If we can listen to ourselves when we are talking, what we are talking becomes clearer. And as that gets clearer, nothing we don’t want or mean to say can come out.

Om Swami is a monk living in the Himalayan foothills. An advanced yogin, well versed in the science of mantra, sacred syllables, tantra, esoteric practices, and meditation, you can visit his blog on

Photo credit: ‘Ear‘ by Big Stock



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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