As the great English philosopher Winnie the Pooh said: ‘If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.’
‘J'écoute mais je tiens pas compte’, said French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a public meeting in January (see here). The phrase has been widely quoted, and mostly a little unjustly out of context. It could be translated several different ways, has nuances in it that it is hard to capture. My version, now that I’ve read a bit more of that context is: ‘I’m listening, but I won’t change course.’ But when I first read it in my daily paper in Switzerland, I took it to mean, ‘I listen to others – but I take no notice!’
Clearly politicians in democracies have a special responsibility to listen to their voters. But they are also elected to lead, to decide, to govern. And as we all know, they cannot please everyone all the time. So there’s a time for listening – the new American President, Obama, is meant to be very good at it. But then there’s a time for deciding, and often a difficult phase of sticking to a decision when opposition to it starts to mobilize. This is perhaps where the French President felt he was: having listened to many sides of the argument, he had come down in favour of closing an army barracks in a small town, where it would have a major impact on the community and its economy. He had listened, but he was still sticking to the decision.
Apparently, there’s a phrase in Japanese, that relates to this, meaning something like ‘I have heard your words, but reserve the right to act in a way that you may not like.’ Often we can live with the illusion that the other is in agreement with us because they have heard what we said, and did not actually disagree! How often in couples, irritations and quarrels turn around ‘I told you’ (which is perhaps true), but when the other partner wasn’t really listening! One simple trick can be to check in with the potential listener: ‘Is this a good time? Can you please really listen?’ My wife demands that I put down the newspaper! Multi-tasking is often a challenge for the male sex – and listening, real listening, while we are doing something else often beats us. But then do I really want to hear what others think and feel? I confess that there are times when I know that all is not well, but I’d rather not get into the details of what exactly has gone wrong – or where exactly I have gone wrong!
Then there’s also the difficult job of listening to ourselves, our own deepest longings and desires, our dreams, our calling, to use that ‘big word’. There are perhaps few things more important in life than finding and following that inner sense of what we are here on earth to do, to achieve. And we also have to learn to listen to our bodies, when they are trying to tell us that they have problems. Or the simple pleasures of our bodies doing things well, for example, when we play our favorite sport, and it all comes together.
Another kind of listening is heeding our conscience, that whisper that can tells us right from wrong. Did some of the architects of the financial crisis feel ill at ease, but then go ahead and ignore that ‘still, small voice’? ‘God gave a man two ears and one mouth; why don’t we listen twice as much as we talk?’ someone once said. Politicians and citizens – we all need in-service training in listening. As the great English philosopher Winnie the Pooh said: ‘If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.’
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.
Andrew Stallybrass, a British writer and publisher, lives in Geneva with his Swiss wife.