In a world where there isn’t a lot to chuckle about I never fail to get at least one belly-laugh out of the TV panel game, ‘Would I Lie to You?’ Panellists tell often hilarious and unlikely stories – some of which are true. The opposing team has to decide which are true and which are lies.
Part of the pleasure of listening to the stories is that there's nothing at stake for me here! It’s nowhere near as fraught as deciding whether I should make a masked dash into the supermarket for some vital supplies! And yes, I know that’s a very minor decision compared to some of the choices others are facing.
More than ever these days, we need to spend time listening and weighing up various aspects of different speakers and stories – making provisional judgements about what is real in the ongoing narratives spun by the media, the advertising industry and other people. It can be exhausting. But listening carefully can be a matter of life and death.
The success of most everyday listening, of course, is not immediately critical. But it may be more critical to our long-term survival than we think. If I didn’t know it before I watched a documentary this week, I am now sure now that the last US president’s inability to listen was a threat to global peace and stability. Rather than listen and engage with complex political and diplomatic decisions, his advisers recounted how he preferred to plan American presidential pageants like the ones he’d witnessed in Europe.
On a more everyday level, listening skills can be crucial to the quality of democracy and of family relationships. If citizens don’t listen well to politicians, our leaders are much more likely to be able to get away with creating fake narratives without our holding them to account. If we don’t listen thoughtfully to media, we shall be less likely to swallow the confection of stories we want to hear rather than accurate reporting that includes unwelcome facts and ideas.
At home, if we don’t listen well to our children, they may feel the pressure only to say those things we want to hear rather than to share who they really are and what they honestly think and feel.
So on this Valentine’s weekend – how well are we listening to the people we love most in the world? Sometimes we don’t listen for obvious reasons like being too busy or tired or bored – or because we need someone to listen to us. Maybe we don’t listen because we might hear things that surprise or shock or confound us, and we fear we won’t know what to do or say or whether we should respond at all. But perhaps the most profound barriers to listening to someone we love come from deep within us – fear of hearing things which will require of us a change that we aren’t ready or even able to make - even for someone we love.
Short of ideas for Valentine's gifts? Can't afford expensive gems? Maybe the best gift we can give our loved ones, whoever they are, is the offer of some listening time. What might happen if we were to say to that special person, ‘Let’s find some time to sit down and give each other our full attention for x minutes’? More mutual listening like that might help to bring a bit more peace and stability to all our worlds.