The Art of Listening

In this extract from her new book Do Listen, Bobette Buster shows us how to tune back into the world — and why we should

Photo: Jim Marsden

Why is it we feel surprised, even grateful, when someone really hears us — when they lean in and gives us their time and attention? How has this basic act and most primal of senses become such a rare commodity in today’s world? Has the one-way street of social media ‘broadcasting’ really marked the end of conversation and listening?

A US national news channel recently conducted an experiment with a small group of teenagers between fourteen and sixteen years old — the generation sometimes known as ‘screenagers’. The reporter’s story was addressing the latest scientific studies that suggest smartphones encourage addictive behaviours, encourage ADHD, depression, FOMO (fear of missing out), and so on. Her experiment was to see what would happen if she took away the teenagers’ smartphones and laptops. They were to go cold turkey for one full week.

I expected that the teens would report great resentment, high anxiety and frustration at being cut off. And, of course, some of them did. But they also knew this experiment had an end date, which likely mitigated some of those negative feelings. When they were asked how they felt at the end of the week, to the reporter’s — and my own — surprise, all of the students responded with what I call ‘curious wonder’. They were slightly amazed at how much they enjoyed talking with their families over dinner. They found time for conversation with their friends. They got their homework done, finished their chores — much to their parents’ amazement.

It is often said that the smartphone has killed small talk as well as the quiet ability to just hang out and learn to handle boredom. When the teens were asked what they took away from this week-long famine of social media connectivity, one fifteen-year-old girl said, ‘I really want to stop using my phone, and learn to just be with my friends.’ Face to face. Not in a group with each person’s face pressed into their individual screens. She was genuinely filled with a curious hope. Like she’d never encountered this thought before. What a novel idea!


It’s interesting to note that when each of us was in our mother’s womb, our eyes were closed but our ears already worked. We heard her heartbeat, the swishing of the amniotic fluid, the jolt of loud noises in the outer world. That was our world. As such, our hearing is connected to our primal emotions and memories. Only when we are born do our eyes open, gather focus, and take in all the light and tonal differences of this new world. Since our eyes are on the front of our face, our main reference point from then on is visual — our perspective is usually based on whatever our eyes can see. Listening retreats to the periphery, a dancing shadow, insofar as our perception is concerned. But it remains the ambient light of our emotions, hard-wired to our first feelings. From the time our ears are formed, they remain on, 24/7. Our hearing is our last sense to go when we die. This is why the Greeks said that our ears are the ‘guardian of our sleep’. A mother will hear her baby cry in the dead of night.

Medical science has discovered that the minute hair fibres lining the cochlea in our ear canal contract and expand, similar to the irises of our eyes. They expand and contract in response to sound waves coming in. Our ears are alerting and protecting us as best they can, but ever since the Industrial Age, our ears have been under assault. Now, we close our ears to all the overlapping, nonstop sonic intrusions. We are selective — choosing to block out the natural world with our headphones, empowered to choose what we want to hear. But in doing so, we are no longer able to sense what is calling us. We have lost the ability to listen. We have forgotten — if we ever knew — the power of silence. We cannot remember how the birds and animals speak — and why we even need to know what they are saying.

It is impossible for us to grasp how quiet the world once was. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, people picked up the ringing line and just listened — in silence. Thus, he also had to decide on a word that could be used so that the person picking up could let the caller know they were on the line — he suggested ‘ahoy’, but it failed to catch on, and the alternative ‘hello’ proposed by his rival Thomas Edison soon became widespread. Similarly, when radio communications first came in during World War One, the people on either end of a conversation soon realised that they needed to confirm they were listening — often by saying ‘Roger’ or ‘Roger that’ periodically. Otherwise, the speaker might worry they were talking into a silent void.

As industrialisation became the driving force of modern society, the world became arguably more aggressive and overbearing in its power. As we know, it also brought people by the millions out of the countryside into the cities. So too exploded the rate of loneliness, disconnection and dislocation. In short, the gentle pace and harmony of pastoral life became a thing of the past. Another way to look at it is that the world became less kind.

Over the generations since the industrial revolution changed life as we know it, how have we tamed our noisy, cacophonous world? The government appropriates taxpayers’ money to build noise barriers on highways, among other attempts to reduce noise pollution. Businesses hire sound engineers to design quieter offices, and we shelter within our own sonic silos — inside our cars, at home with multiple soundscapes competing for our attention (television, radio, music, and so on). Staring into our screens — though they may be silent — our minds are listening to what’s being broadcast to us in steady, unending streams. The ubiquitous smartphone has become the great killer of small talk — the universal way we have connected since time immemorial. Equally ubiquitous today are the earbuds that cocoon us within our own private worlds. No one needs to listen to anything other than what they want to hear any more.

In fact, we are consciously choosing to not listen, though the world is crying out to us to pay attention. What if we did that?


The hidden world reveals itself when we listen. It is the only way we can continue to grow and flourish as individuals — and as a society. We break through our own limitations and self-interest. Once you listen well to another person, you both connect. A new trust has been born.


Exercise: Consciously tune in to the world

The universe — the sun, stars and wind — conspires to slow us down, to pause, to take a breath, and in doing so, gradually we find ourselves stilled into a state of gratitude for being alive. Even just for a moment. Our ears can help us do this. Here’s a short exercise to tune in to the power of listening:

Go for a walk in an urban park, along the shoreline of a beach or stroll down a leafy street where you will undoubtedly hear the chorus of birds, or the leaves rustling. Take time for nature and tune in to your surroundings.

I often ponder the physics of all the waveforms that surround us — thinking about how sound waves travel slower than light. What we hear strikes us at a slower rate than what we see, which is instantaneous. It’s my belief that when we listen — when we consciously tune into the sounds coming to our attention — this somehow realigns our hearts and minds. We are stilled. Perhaps this is why we find ourselves in awe when we stop to look at the moon, the sunrise, or the surf rolling onto a beach.

When you’re on your walk, take the time to rediscover all those sounds from the natural world seeking to grab your attention. Then note how you feel on your return. Perhaps time has somehow expanded around you. And maybe your state of mind, the people you encounter, and the rest of your day will be better for it.


Bobette Buster is a story consultant based in Los Angeles, California. She teaches storytelling at film programs all over the world and consults for major studios, including Pixar, Disney, and Sony Animation. She is the documentary producer of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2018). Currently she is Professor of the Practice of Digital Storytelling at Northeastern University, Boston. She is also the author of Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens (Do Books, 2013).


Extract from Do Listen: Understand what’s really being said. Find a new way forward by Bobette Buster. Copyright @ 2018 by Bobette Buster. Published by The Do Book Co.

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