How to Shut Up

How to Shut Up

There’s some really terrible listening around. I’m not talking about on Question Time (though it’s terrible there). I’m not talking about on Twitter (awful too). I’m not even talking about email and how it irons out communication to a series of flat, lo-fi broadcasts (listening free zone). I mean closer to home, amongst composers, improvisers, sound artists, music sector arts administrators – people who really should know better.

I’ll share three illustrative examples that I have either witnessed or had reported to me from reliable sources:

1. The seasoned improviser so poor at listening that organisational collaboration with this individual may be harmful to ones sanity

2. The leading sound art academic so obsessed with his or her own content that he or she constantly interrupts and talks over other participants in the group

3. The music arts administrator so distracted that he flicks through his email whilst his son is telling him about his day at school

Yup, that last one’s me. Shameful isn’t it, hardly ‘father of the year’. But what do these three sad cases all have in common? All three of them have developed their aesthetic listening to a pretty high standard through years of training. Good aesthetic listening is a key part of the way they self identify, indeed they would probably pride themselves on it. Yet all three show practical listening skills that wouldn’t be out of place in a disruptive primary school classroom. Many of us value a highly aestheticized (some would say fetishized) form of listening, yet the standards, and expectations, we bring to our own communicative listening often fall woefully short of these ideals. Are we a ‘listening profession’ that struggles to listen?

To improve your listening why not try these two exercises. You’ll be amazed at the results.

1. Don’t interrupt anyone for a whole day.

Nancy Kline has written that “interruption is intellectual imperialism”. Watch what happens when someone interrupts you and you’ll see this is true. The interrupters actions say “my thoughts are more important that yours, I am going to stop you thinking now so that I can take my turn whether you like it or not. I wasn’t listening to what you just said, I don’t really care about it and I’ve had enough of it.”

See what happens to your train of thought when you are interrupted: it is broken, you lose your place, you are on the defensive, your thinking is cut short. Interruption introduces competition into conversation and discussion. Competition has no place in good thinking. It has no place in good listening. 

2. Refrain from giving advice for a whole day

Giving advice is not good listening. It’s usually just speaking from your own autobiography. It’s amazing what happens when you stop giving advice: people tell you more about things and they work things out for themselves. Try asking encouragingquestions instead. “What would you like to have happen?” is a good one. “What would make the biggest difference?” is another. “And is there anything else about that?” is a third. These are open and ‘clean’ questions. They help the thinker work with their own thoughts, they introduce no content, they merely direct attention. A good rule of thumb is that the answer to a problem or question is probably in the mind of the questioner. They have probably thought about it a lot longer that you have after all. It’s likely they justneed someone to listen to them properly and they will work it out better than you can.The quality of our listening directly affects the quality of other people’s thinking.

Try these two things and don’t worry. If you don’t interrupt people they will not go on talking forever. In fact they will be able to listen to you much better once they have talked out, they’ll be ready to hear you. If you don’t advise people they won’t become confused (unless they want to know your phone number or the time, though that’s just giving people information, not an opinion on how they should act), they will be able to think more deeply.

If you try these two things you will see that people will grow in their trust in you. They will believe that you understand them. They will believe that you are actually interested in their thinking. Make the time, these things are more important than answering your email.

I actually think we, as aesthetic listeners, have a moral obligation to listen well. Let’s show that we are a listening profession after all and model good listening for others.Good listening improves us. Good listening is a radical act that can change the world.

Related Posts


    David Mortara
    February 15, 2015 at 1:20 pm Reply

    What is difficult, I suppose, is developing and internalising one’s own barometer, so that there is a conscious awareness of not listening enough? I mean, how did you realise, Richard that you weren’t listening to your son’s recollection of his day at school?

      Richard Whitelaw
      March 19, 2015 at 9:17 am Reply

      Hi David, I think it requires practice. A useful approach is start from a position of being genuinely interested in what another person has to say and think. In the example I gave about not being attentive to Sam my honest answer is that, in that moment, I was more interested in my stuff (my work, email, calendar etc) that what he was thinking and saying. I saw myself doing this and I didn’t like it. That was the moment of realisation. Another strategy is to model listening at your best. Think about what happens when you are listening at your best, what happens before, what happens after, what’s it like. One can then take this model and use it as a entry strategy in listening.

  2. Kirsty Devaney on Feeling Like A Fraud | The Sampler Blog
    April 21, 2015 at 3:09 pm Reply

    […] The composers were invited to the second Adopt a Composer ‘skills day’ which allowed us to have a space to meet and share experiences with the other composers and our mentors. I was feeling excited about it as the previous event had been very useful and I really enjoyed the company of the other composers on the scheme. The day was focused on any issues or concerns that had been raised so far on the project and talked a lot about the act of listening – of truly listening to someone, what that means, and how to become better listeners. I would highly recommend Richard Whitelaw’s blog post about this titled ‘How to Shut Up’. […]

Leave A Comment