Well why don’t you ring them up and tell them about it. There’s no point in just talking about it. If you want I’ll ring them…
Colm! I don’t want you to fix it. I just want you to listen to me.

I sigh with incomprehension. This is no time for listening. This is a time for action. Nobody says Lights. Camera. Listen. Not that I’m a fixer either of course but I can at least throw shapes. But just for now, my wife wants me to listen.

The ‘difference in approach’ could be something to do with upbringing. In a house with three brothers, at home we used the phrase “Why don’t you…”or “If you like I’ll” followed by the suggested solution. My wife had three sisters and a brother, so there was a lot of “I know what you mean, that happened to me too.” (The brother obviously not getting in a word in edgeways)

People who work in professions like counselling will often employ a technique called Active Listening According to Wikipedia, ”Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding.” Or to put it another way, actually listening to someone, rather then pretending and just waiting for them to stop talking so you can tell a better story.

Even so, my brief experience of counselling was actually a frustrating experience. During my Final Year in Civil Engineering degree in college, (I know, thankfully, I saw sense and am now doing something a little less flighty) sometime in early Spring, with project deadlines and examinations coalescing into an intimidating wall of work, I became quite stressed. So I went to see the college counsellor. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out she was just there to actively listen. When what I wanted was someone to finish one or two of my projects and persuade the lecturers to give me free marks. And possibly give me some money as well.

The little bit of reading I have done indicates that active listening could be useful in diffusing or avoiding rows. One tactic is for the listener to observe the speaker’s behaviour, tone and body language – what is known as ‘listening for feelings’

So for example if I ask – “What’s wrong?” and my wife says “Nothing’s wrong” with a particular tone, then clearly something’s wrong so it’s important to take note. If I ignored the body-language and tone completely and raised another un-related issue – “I wish you’d clean out your porridge bowl rather than leaving it” that would be positively incendiary. Within seconds, like the finally-lets-kick-some-ass scene in an action movie, boxes of mental weapons are being unpacked, bullet-belts slung on, even the weedy guy is thrown a Kalashnikov and shown how to use it by The Girl.

Instead, thanks to one hour’s Internet research on active listening, I’ve now learned to say “You seem upset about something” and tilt my head into a listening position and take it from there.

It’s important however not to veer into pseudolistening. This is someone complains about something you’ve done, you pretend that you’ve heard what the person has said, empathise with them and say that you completely understand but then proceed to do it anyway. This is also known as ‘Government Policy’.

Whatever about the field of human interaction, there are many other situations where active listening is desperately needed. Unfortunately, the automated checkout has become the scene of 1st World rage.

Boop!….Boop!….Boop! Unexpected Item In Bagging Area
What do you mean?!
Unexpected Item in Bagging Area
Do you require further assistance. A member of staff will assist you shortly.

With a little bit of education on the benefits of Active listening for both sides, the apoplectic rage felt by one side could be reduced somewhat.

Boop!….Boop!….Boop! Unexpected Item In Bagging Area
So you’re saying that there’s an unexpected item in your bagging area
– Yes. And there shouldn’t be.
– I know. And that annoys you.
– Yes.I feel like people are being selfish and not thinking of my feelings. How can I know they’re not Anthony Worrall Thompson?
– That must be terrible for you. It annoys me too but…
– I know. I can’t help it. I know you just want to scan the beans but I can’t while there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area. And I see you getting angry but there’s nothing I can do.
– I understand. I’ll remove the unexpected item so . What is it?
– I’ve no idea – it might just have been the wind. Sorry
– That’s fine

That might seem fantastical but believe it or not, the world of empathetic robots is said to be only a few years away. Or so I’ve heard.

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