Staff columnist Yousuf Ali.

By YOUSUF ALI, Staff Columnist

Just because someone speaks does not mean that they have something to say. In fact, I’ve noticed that it’s often quite the opposite. In many situations, simple silence can be much more meaningful than words. This is because there is often a negative relation between the amount of time people spend talking and listening. As a result, conversations often degenerate into nothing more than meaningless exchanges in which the participants simply talk past one another instead of talking to each other. The solution to this is rather simple yet remarkably difficult: learning to listen.

To begin, it is necessary to make a distinction between hearing and listening. Anyone who is not deaf can hear, but much fewer listen. Listening does not simply mean being quiet while another is speaking; rather, it necessitates actually thinking about what is being said. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the listener. Many are not willing to make that effort when they are hearing ideas that they do not agree with.

It is a lot easier to listen to words that reinforce existing beliefs than it is to listen to that which one does not agree with. This is natural as people are more comfortable exposing themselves to ideas which align with their own, rather than subjecting themselves to that which does not. That said, this can have deleterious consequences when taken too far. In this age of mass connections and communications, people are, paradoxically, more disconnected than ever. In fact, a New York University  found that people on social media were significantly more likely to transmit information from people who shared their beliefs and opinions than those who did not. In other words, the Internet has allowed people to create “echo chambers” in which they only have to expose themselves to views that match their own. So, rather than connecting people, social media has made it all too easy for us to drive each other apart. As a consequence, we are worse at listening than ever before, and the harms are extremely serious.

The harms of the online “echo chambers” are all too real. When one is only exposed to similar people and opinions, then lies and misinformation about others becomes far too easy. For example, let’s say that there is a young Sunni man in Saudi Arabia, and one of his 500 like-minded Facebook friends shares a post saying that all Shiites are liars. Since his only source of information is people telling him that, he is almost certain to believe that. Consequently, when he actually meets a Shi’a person, he already thinks that he is a liar even before knowing anything else about them. This is just ONE of many examples that could be given to illustrate the harms of not listening to others. Furthermore, given how widespread and systematic this phenomena is, it’s hardly any surprise that some of these people will act on the misinformation with violence.

If we wish to improve the status quo, we must start with ourselves. Whether it be about grand political and religious differences or personal relationships, it is essential that we be willing to listen to, not just hear, those who disagree with us. This can only come once we understand that we are indeed capable of making mistakes and can learn from listening to others. After this, people will understand that it is far better to silently listen to others rather than to simply mindlessly rote-repeat everything one has been told. With this mindset, meaningful communication becomes possible.

It is impossible to overstate just how important listening is to the wellbeing of both individuals and society. In our age of mass communication, it has become remarkably easy for people to share opinions whilst not giving any thoughts as to whether or not they are based on truth or falsehood. Furthermore, the natural human tendency to be with like-minded people has been transformed into a situation in which people are only hearing that which reinforces their own views. The result is a situation in which people naively accept lies about those who are different. These lies often inspire misguided people to engage in acts of violence. The tragedy is that such things could have been prevented had people not simply isolated themselves in their own echo chambers. Once people listen to one another, they will learn how to actually talk to instead of talking past. Perhaps, there will even be genuine understanding; however, none of that is possible without taking the first step of listening.