It has become like an epidemic. We hear but do not listen. If we listen, it is in a pre-occupied state that is rooted in the self, the individual. The ramifications seem to impact almost all aspects of life.

Dictionary meanings for ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’ are interesting in themselves. Hearing is the faculty of perceiving sounds. Listening is giving attention to a sound, taking notice of and acting on what someone says, making an effort to hear something. The last, ‘making an effort’, is critical because listening may be at nil or low levels in a pre-occupied state of mind. The result can be half-baked, incorrect or harmful reactions.

Why bother with this concept of hearing and listening at all? Think about how it affects our capacity to perceive the Other and it gets thought-provoking. This is no treatise on the concept of phenomenology in its formal form. Just a hint on how we humans are treating, responding to, bypassing or eliminating every Other in our daily lives.

There is a simple recent example that set me thinking. A link for a video went out on WhatsApp. It was a little under two minutes long. In about 30 seconds, there was a ‘thumb-index-finger wonderful’ posted back. The person had clearly not viewed the full video but had an opinion and reaction. Imagine this in context of the different kinds of information that encircle us.

It’s differently similar in routine telephone conversations. People either constantly react to half the spoken sentence before listening to the full. Or speak in unstoppable sentences, without listening to the Other’s reactions. It makes for a peculiar circumstance of communicating without fully giving space to the Other in the conversation.

Personal relationships and social interaction have their own kinds of hearing-listening phenomena. Spouses, parents, children hear but don’t listen. In this not listening, the self can drive the ego to a degree that obliterates the Other. Reactions brink on the ugly and irretrievable, resulting in stress-causing daily clashes, rifts, divorces, family break-ups… and worse.

The hearing-listening in social situations, where we interact in public spaces or in groups, functions at another level. In a shop, it can lead to bizarre conversations between the buyer and seller. Each is locked in the spaces they, as persons, belong to, where each is hearing but often not listening.

Gently ask for Haldi-kanti soap in a shop. The chances are, the guy is going to bring a pack of haldi powder back for you. Ask for a pure cotton top in a garment shop. What comes back could well be a polyester mix. The seller thinks this is a difficult buyer, the buyer thinks this is a useless shop. Depending on circumstances, it can get acrimonious.

Noises in a cocktail party in a jet-set metropolitan home are revelatory. Every other person picks on half a phrase and animatedly responds to it. There is no flow of conversation. Just an unseemly James Joycean association of words leading to mindless chatter. Blabber culminating in nothing.

Hearing-listening in hierarchical situations can be alarmingly harmful. Are bureaucrats listening to anything? The moment you declare who you are and what your intent is, the pompously informed ‘self’ of the bureaucrat paints a pre-conceived picture of the Other across the table. His / her answers are pre-determined on that basis.

There was an occasion when a very senior bureaucrat, known for his arrogance, was to be interviewed by a lady journalist on a serious aspect of climate change. As soon as she sat down and introduced herself, the bureaucrat said, “Oh, these days, all women are journalists.” [1980s]. You don’t need much imagination to know how seriously that interview could have transpired. The bureaucrat heard everything and listened to nothing in the lady journalist’s questions.

The corporate world has fine-tuned its feedback mechanisms and specialise in out-of-the-box practices to keep harmony between different levels of management. Yet, the rate at which employees change jobs speaks volumes in itself. It is, in fact, more a case of there being nothing to hear and therefore, listen to. Individuals keep mum out of fear of internal politics that can affect their status or promotion. Employers still have to master the art of listening to this silence of the Other.

It gets worse in the development aid sector. The entire highly-qualified United Nations system and aid agencies in the northern hemisphere are in the business of bettering lives in the southern hemisphere, the developing world. By and large, they hear about the poverty, the malnutrition, et al, via data. They do not listen to the real voices of the poor and the malnourished on their high-flying mission travels.

The prism of elaborate and fanciful analytical logical frameworks, output numbers, scalability, pre-determine their responses to human conditions. The failure level of the erstwhile Sustainable Development Goals and the limping achievements of the Millennium Development Goals speak for themselves. Massive spends in the aid industry, decades of modified West-driven ‘development models’ in a vacuum of listening…and the divides continue.

From individuals to groups to systems, this hearing-listening phenomenon is at its worst in politics. And well-exploited to create unwanted infamous situations in nation states across the world. People are taking action on just the sound they hear with their rooted individual selves. They are not making ‘an effort to listen’ before resorting to action that is increasingly causing harm to the social fabric of nations.

From the individual to a nation, it is an era of a big divide between hearing and listening to the Other. We need to transit to mindful hearing of other voices, so that we are truly listening to the Other.