Listening: Lost Tools of Society Series

Tired of your spouse not listening? Take the classic scene of the wife chattering at her husband while he is reading the newspaper. Stopping suddenly, she asks, “Are you even listening to me?” He answers, “Huh? What? Of course I am listening to you.” He heard her, but he did not listen to her. It’s like he needed a “listening aid” instead of a hearing aid.

Is your spouse similar? You know they are hearing you, but they are not engaged. Perhaps an upcoming Valentines day or birthday gift could be Mortimer J. Adler’s book How to Speak, How to Listen. Adler has taught that listening is an active participation of the ear and mind. Maybe this book would be a not so subtle hint to your spouse and also help them in their weaknesses of communication. This article is apart of a three part series titled, The Lost Tools of Society focusing on Listening, Conversation, and Rhetoric.

One section of this book teaches people how to listen. To think that listening should not be taught is a complete falsehood. Listening, even more nowadays, is an essential tool needed to excel in relationships. Listening has to be an active, mental process of the brain. If one is passive in this endeavor, they are simply hearing, but not listening. In college, a professor asked the class how to show someone you were listening. To my potential chagrin, I was called on. I had no clue at first. I thought to myself and tried to answer. “When I engage with people, I try to ask questions based on what they are saying.” I was right…and yes, happily surprised. One way to help in staying focused on a conversation, is to be active–think of questions that keeps the mind actively pursuing full understanding.

“Listening, being 46% of communication, is the least taught and trained in all the years of schooling?”- Adler

What is major and what is minor?

It would be nice to say that being active in listening is the only requirement to listen well, but there is more. The other process to listening is the filtering of information that is the point of the communicator. After this is where the rubber meets the road: Do you agree, disagree, or do you not have enough information to make a judgment? Unfortunately, listening is not like reading. For the most part, someone can read at the pace they choose. When listening, we are at the mercy of the speaker. Therefore, we need to ascertain what is major and minor in a conversation. Adler gives us four questions to answer in helping us figure out what is important.

Four Helpful Questions to Keep in Mind While Listening:

1. What is the Speech about?
2. What are the main or pivotal ideas, conclusions, and arguments?
3. Are the speaker’s conclusions sound or mistaken?
4. What of it?

This is a great exercise for teaching children how to listen in church. Go through these questions to yourself and with your family after morning worship on Sunday. The more often this is done, the better everyone in the family will become at listening. Listen with a purpose.

Does all this sound quite overwhelming? I will be honest and say that it does for me. I am sure your spouse would also find it extremely challenging. Good news is Adler doesn’t leave us hanging.

Citations & References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen (New York: MacMillan Pub. Co., 1983), p.89. 

[2] Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen, p. 96

For Further Discussion:

A Summary of 5 Ways to Listen Better by: Julian Treasure
Manly Men Have Something to Say about Listening at: The Art of Manliness


The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.

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