Talking and listening

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To talk (kathā) is to articulate words and to listen (nisāmeti or sussūsati) is to attend to words being spoken. A combination of talking and listening is the most common form of human communication and therefore of great importance in human relations. Refusing to talk with someone, not making oneself clear when talking to them or not listening to them when they are trying to explain themselves, are the cause of innumerable problems between people. If we talk to others and listen when they talk, we create the possibility of mutual sympathy, understanding and tolerance. The Buddha's concept of Right Speech pertains mainly to the ethical dimensions of speech, to what we talk about. But the Buddha was also concerned with how we talk, with those qualities that can make our words a positive and effective means of communication. The Buddha always talked in a way that was 'serious and beneficial for opening the mind' (kathā abhisallekhikā cetovivaraṇa sappāyā, A.V,67) and he asked his disciples to talk without ambling (na byādhati) or hesitating (asandiṭṭhaṃ), in a gentle tone (saṇha) and to use 'language that is polished, clear, free-flowing, meaningful, comprehensive and unbiased' (A.II,51; V,81; 96). Talking in such a manner makes ordinary social interactions more pleasant and harmonious and teaching the Dhamma in such a way makes it more attractive and convincing.

However, not all eloquence is positive. Some people combine their rhetorical skills with cleaver arguments and a loud voice to dominate every conversation and stifle every point of view but their own. In the religious debates at the time of the Buddha, some speakers could 'counter and crush true speech with false speech so that the audience gets excited and shouts, ssA sage indeed! A real sage!ss ' (A.V,230). Saying something simply, sincerely and in a gentle measured voice can sometimes be more effective than sophisticated delivery.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to effective verbal communication is talking too much, of being 'so talkative and longwinded that no one else has a chance to say anything' (Ja.I.418). This unattractive habit has its roots in narcissism, a lack of awareness of others or being too attached to one's opinion. The Buddha often praised those who were 'easy to talk to' (suvaca, A.V,81), a quality that requires a person to be approachable, friendly and to let others know that he or she is interested in them and what they have to say. It also requires punctuating one's conversation with pauses that allow others to express their ideas, to consider what is being said or to ask questions. Talking all the time or for too long is a form of selfishness while being easy to talk to shows respect, generosity and courtesy towards others. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore, that the Buddha saw being easy to talk to as an expression of love (Sn.143).

But for communication to take place it is not just enough to let others talk, we have to genuinely listen to them when they do. Sometimes when others are talking we affect an expression of interest although we are not really listening to them but only waiting for an opportunity to interrupt them so we can say what we want. To genuinely listen we have to close our mouth and open our mind so that the other person's words are not just heard but comprehended. Being a good listener helps us understand people and it also helps us understand ideas. The Buddha knew that listening is an important factor in education. He said: 'There are five advantages of listening to the Dhamma. What five? One hears things not heard before, clarifies things heard before, dispels doubts, straightens one's ideas and one's mind is delighted' (A.III,248). Before teaching the Dhamma, the Buddha would often say to his audience 'listen carefully, pay attention and I will speak' (suṇāhi sādhukaṃ maṅasikarohi, A.V,302). A popular saying in Burma is that we have one mouth and two ears and therefore we should listen twice as much as we talk.