The duty of listening

By Jill Segger
August 24, 2011

"The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening." These words of the Quaker writer Pierre Lacout should be placed in letters five feet tall on the walls of all broadcasting studios.

It has become commonplace on current affairs and phone-in programmes to hear several people all talking at once, none of them willing to give way, wait or listen. Often, an individual will plough across all attempts of an interviewer to ask a question or bring them back to the point. Oliver Miles, former UK ambassador to Libya, in a radio interview aired earlier this week, displayed this behaviour to the detriment of his listeners, who might have learned something had he been capable of interaction with the interviewer

This is not just rude, it is ugly and completely pointless. I am sure that I am not the only listener who switches off in despair at the babble of meaningless and confrontational noise or arrogant disregard for communication which is the outcome of these mindsets.

In the aftermath of the rioting, many angry voices were heard on the air. Perhaps the worst – given his relatively privileged position and supposed sophistication in the use of the media - was the rant delivered by Kelvin McKenzie on Radio 5's 13 August morning programme. His self-winding and relentless increase in volume and pitch utterly defeated any possibility of communication and was thrown into even more stark relief by the quiet courtesy of his fellow studio guest, Sunny Hundal.

Individuals who have no concept of the dignity and sensibilities of others can have nothing to say that will raise the level of our common life. Their message is simple: my views are more important that yours; I have nothing to learn from you. In other words, I am here for domination, not for dialogue. Add to that the primitive concept that shouting down an interlocutor proves your potency, and we are in an area of communication which owes more to chest-beating than to reason or grace.

The overweening ego which leads to this kind of behaviour is nourished by a culture which does not set much store by modesty, reticence or willingness to acknowledge the possibility of being mistaken. Self-promotion is all, and to gain publicity - even apparently for being an ill-mannered bigot - is better than not being noticed. Screeching wanabees vie with each other for this odd distinction and we are all the poorer for it.

Media culture does not allow for the reflection which is a natural outcome of attentive listening. Particularly on radio, 'dead air' of more than a few seconds will have the studio host twitching nervously. To decline to express an opinion or to admit to not having an answer is to risk being thought stupid. The instant response is king and the more quickly it comes, the more assured the speaker is thought to be.

The duty of listening does not end at the door of a radio or TV studio. How many conversations have you had today where one or both parties were waiting with ill-concealed impatience for the other to stop speaking so they could hold forth? How many times have you cut across another or been cut across?

To speak without listening is a form of bullying. The very possibility of an exchange from which both could learn and some aspect of truth might be mined out, is set aside, to be replaced by something base and self-seeking.

Lacout concluded his reflection on our mutual responsibilities to the gift of speech with these words: “Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.”

This may be a counsel of perfection, but that does not mean that we cannot do better.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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