The importance of listening well

Conversations between governments and citizens and among citizens themselves are crucial in a democracy

September 24, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

many people talking for a solution. vector concept

many people talking for a solution. vector concept

A very instructive passage on the difference in norms of debate among ancient Indian scholars, on the one hand, and kings and their subjects, on the other is found in the ancient text, Milinda-pañha . It records an exchange between the Indo-Greek king Milinda (Menander) and the Buddhist monk Nāgasena.

When the king fails to understand a point made by Nāgasena, he asks, “Will you discuss with me again?”

Nāgasena says: “If your Majesty will discuss as a scholar ( paṇḍita ), yes; but if you discuss as a king, no.”

“How do scholars discuss?”

“When scholars talk a matter over with each other, there is a winding up, an unravelling; distinctions are made and counter-distinctions; one or other is convinced of error, and then acknowledges his mistake; and yet thereby they are not angered. Thus, do scholars, O king, discuss.”

“And how do kings discuss?”

“When a king, your Majesty, discusses a matter, and he advances a point, if anyone differs from him on that point, he is apt to fine him saying: ‘Inflict such and such a punishment upon that fellow!’ Thus, Your Majesty, do kings discuss.”

Debates in ancient India, the text seems to say, were tranquil, stress-free events in which participants did not hesitate to change their opinions where necessary, a far cry from royal (political) discussions in which disagreement with political rulers was frequently fraught with danger and winning a debate was almost, and sometimes literally, a matter of life and death.

Listening to citizens

In fact, democracy is the only form of government where rules of scholarly and political debate are supposed to coincide, both among citizens and between governments and citizens. Debates are meant to be conducted fearlessly and in the ensuing discussion, mistakes are acknowledged and opinions changed. There is no anger or sense of humiliation if and when one is shown to be in error. Public arguments are meant to compel citizens to openly acknowledge when proven wrong and force governments to admit their mistakes and change policies. But is any of this possible without proper listening? It is said that it is the privilege of powerful people to speak and the lot of the powerless to listen. The beauty of democracy is that it obliges the powerful to listen.

Of course, even democratic governments do not always listen to their electors. But as soon as their legitimacy dips below a certain threshold, as soon as their habit of turning a deaf ear to their people threatens their survival, they seem instinctively to know that it is absolutely crucial to start listening.

Something akin to this appears to have recently taken place in India. A month ago, the current government appeared not to be listening to anyone. And although it is arguable that only a few top corporates were eventually heard, it is equally true that after months of silence on the pleadings of the ‘people’ to do something about the economic slowdown, the government finally listened to someone. Can we not now take this as an opportunity to demand an extension of this courtesy to others? To the farmers, or the poor more generally? To, say, teachers, scholars, dancers, musicians, painters, town-planners on education and cultural policy? To Kashmiris, Dalits and the minorities? Should not the government listen to those who dissent from their policies?

It is pretty obvious to me that the answer to these questions must be in the affirmative. Good governments make a habit of listening to citizens. Indeed, in democracies, those temporarily in power need to develop the quality of being good listeners, sushrutas . What do I mean by this and how will this help?

Good listening

Allowing someone to speak is, of course, the first precondition of listening. Remaining quiet while she is speaking is another. But silence can still mean not listening. One may even pretend to listen, but remain disengaged or distracted. We all know that there exists what might be called ‘vacant-look listening’, when the interlocutor is physically present but mentally absent. Even sincere silence may just convey paternalistic assurance or be viewed as a strategy to allow the speaker to let off steam. It can betray biased judgment, moralising, or a readiness for instant advice. These are conversation-stoppers, roadblocks to listening. Good listening is attentive, uninterrupted, and genuinely responsive.

There is more to good listening. The Indian spiritual thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, put this point across well. He said: “There are two ways of listening: there is the mere listening to words, as you listen when you are not really interested, when you are not trying to fathom the depths of a problem; and there is the listening which catches the real significance of what is being said.” In short, good listening is empathetic and self-reflexive. It involves the capacity to step out of one’s own perspective, consider things from the other’s point of view — “climb into his skin and walk around in it”, as Harper Lee put it. Good listening enables an accurate understanding of what another person is thinking, feeling, experiencing, and meaning. None of this is possible if one remains self-centered, or believes that truth and goodness is on one side alone. Good listening further presupposes that others have much to teach us, especially those who, in important aspects, are different from us.

Such good listening is especially needed in times of deep disagreement when we forget that there are as many views as there are people and delude ourselves into believing that the world is divided in two: us and them. We believe that only two views exist, and the one held by us is correct. This particularly crude form of binary thinking exacerbates conflicts, and deepens polarisation. A polarised world contains prefect conditions for people to stop listening to each other. It is precisely at such times that we need encouragement to start listening, so that we can broaden the horizon of our experience, to break the horrible habit of dismissing differences. Listening helps reveal hidden commonalities that bolster cooperation. It dispels mistaken assumptions. It brings greater acceptance. In such deeply divided times, should it not be the duty of democratic governments to encourage people to de-escalate bitterness and discord and begin listening to one another?

Listening to many

The government has made a good beginning by listening to a few. Since good democratic governments strive to be inclusive, to win the trust of all, they must listen to the many, become bahushruta . Deliberative democrats often emphasise the importance of good arguments and wish the best argument to determine its decisions. But can we ever know ‘the best argument’ if we haven’t listened to all of them? Unless we ensure that, as far as possible, all points of view have indeed been taken into account? This inclusion is impossible without listening to voices that may have been repressed before, voices of the powerless and the vulnerable.

A continuing conversation between governments and citizens and among citizens themselves is crucial in a democracy. But good conversations presuppose good habits of listening. Governments must take seriously their duty to be not only sushruta , but bahushruta . Citizens too must take more responsibility for cultivating these public virtues.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi

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