# 325: Listening


Amann, Melanie, and Christoph Schult (2021). “Ich weiß nicht, ob man das überhaupt heilen kann.“ Der Spiegel.

Story behind the Passage

Sorry to tell you but today, I am going to again deal with virtues, at least partly. The reason why I am sending out this warning is because I have been talking about virtues many times these past days. Well, if I think about it, I have been talking about the virtue of learning ever since I started the blog. The idea was that people actually want to learn something when they read. Then I had to painfully learn that learning has so many different connotations nowadays which end up having very little to do with what I care most about: education — defined as the holistic formation of character.

This morning, I had a short conversation with someone whom I cannot describe in more detail. The only thing I can say about him is that he is an honest, courageous, and wise man who has seen and suffered more than most people wearing nice suits and showing off with Ph.D. titles in front of their names. That takes me to the topic already: We have ended up in a one-way street of society where, even though people keep claiming that they work in “flat hierarchies,” many of them are so obedient that they do not even realize anymore how much they are bowing to authority.

I was one of them.

In my case, for a long time, it was a truly self-created approval to keeping quiet by means of holding back. It was because I falsefully believed that others were a lot smarter and a lot more experienced. This is why you shut up willfully. The opposite of talking is listening. At the moment when you shut up, nobody can listen to you. And if you do not shut up but talk, it only makes sense if someone listens to you. This country, and others probably too, have come to a point where there is a huge mismatch when it comes to who listens to whom. And, you might guess it already, I am again looking at the misery in Afghanistan as the most prominent example now. But I am sure, you will know many more examples at the top of your head.

What we see when we now read through all the reports that analyze the fatal decision-making processes that preceded the rise of the Taliban and the fact that, as of now, hardly anybody can get out of the country anymore, including the local staff members whom Germany is responsible for, there is one conclusion a former soldier just mentioned in an interview that I watched:

“I am surprised how surprised everyone is about this.”

In other words, thousands of soldiers, journalists and other people on the ground could have told the respective politicians at any point in the past 20 years about what would make sense to do. And guess what, many of them, including security advisors, did tell them. Journalists evidently wrote about it. But, here comes the point: Who listened? And by listening, I do not even mean the “listening” in the sense of following a suggestion or a piece of advice. I am not even talking about this consequentalist kind of listening. I am talking about what you call active listening in coaching speak and psychology. You truly listen what someone is saying without ANY KIND of ego intention. You listen in order to hear and learn — to UNDERSTAND. It is that simple.

Or complicated…

Now, merely listening, even active listening, does not provide you with insights yet. In order to get to insights, a lot more needs to happen in addition. You need to bring your entire experience and knowledge together in order to link what you are hearing with whatever you bring to the table. Only then are the conditions for actual insights and consequently decisions given. But none of this seems to be taking place anymore. And, as you might guess, education is one answer to changing this. It is not the only one, obviously, and it is the most long-term solution, but I simply want to point to some measures below, which might bring changes in the long run, but which are still very pragmatic in the short term. And one of them, this is why I mentioned him, came from the young man on the phone today.

My Learnings

“Die informieren sich ja gegenseitig und haben falsche Lageeinschätzungen voneinander übernommen.“ / “They mutually inform each other and have been adopting wrong assessments of the situation.“ So, here is how we can change the fact that people learn to look more closely, ask more questions, and listen carefully. I want to link these “solutions” to the four cardinal virtues of the Greeks because, as you will see, listening is prevented by so many other things that go wrong. That is the point. People who are not able to listen have missed to learn several other skills in life which cannot be made up for easily. At the same time, and that makes me feel ashamed, people who do not speak up have also missed to learn something important: self-confidence…

1. Wisdom/prudence: People who seek knowledge and not just self-acclaim listen. But wisdom also makes people confident. And confident people speak up and do not give up fighting for what is right, even if no one listens at first.

2. Justice: If you seek just assessment of something, you have no other choice than listening. Otherwise, your judgement is no judgement but condemnation.

3. Courage: Only if you listen, you can minimize risks. And only if you listen, will you have the courage to ask questions that are meaningful.

4. Temperance: Listening means not talking at the same time, i.e., you are automatically forced to not dominate the conversation, to keep the balance.

You might notice that there is one virtue which is not part of the Greek list of virtues but which still needs to be in place for all others to become effective: responsibility. I am so much pondering this term these days. I was not aware of how much we have actually lost sight of this and wasted so much potential to teach it. And the shame is: I have not seriously realized what it means for my life either. Hence, there is much more to learn and you might wonder now where the practical consequences are. Guess what, here is the one conclusion I can draw which will make people think I am turning radical. But I do not and I have no intention to join some conservative party. It is only because I myself have realized the value of the following measures recently. Here it is:

  • Reintroduce the grades for “social behavior” (“Kopfnoten”) which our report cards still used to have when I went to school (most schools abolished them).

One reason why these things were abandoned, I guess, was because hardly any objective assessment is possible. It all depends on the highly subjective evaluation of your teacher(s). I understood that when I was a student. But this very fact also tells us that we actually do not trust the people who give these grades, i.e., teachers. And that is a pretty good description of the status quo. How can a new generation of responsible and capable leaders be educated if our current “elite” of educators is a moral mess?

Again, here are three pragmatic answers:

a) One mandatory year abroad for each student after finishing high school.

b) A mandatory internship in business or industry for every professor.

c) A minimum grade point average for all teachers candidates and assessment centers.

Maybe we also find volunteers to teach our foreign affairs minister “Listening 101”?

Reflection Questions

1) Who is the best listener in your private or professional circle? Why do you think so?

2) Do you think that self-confidence is the major reason why some (smart) people do not speak up louder to be heard? What are other reasons?

3) Which other suggestions do you have for preventing political failures from happening, especially when it comes to foreign affairs issues?