Listening or hearing?

What’s the difference?  Today’s Independent featured a column headed ‘Gordon may be listening – but he’s not really hearing.’  Are the two verbs interchangeable?  Could we say ‘Gordon may be hearing – but he’s not really listening.’  Of course the first and genuine headline is based on the commitment that Gordon Brown had already made ot ‘listen and lead’ so naturally the columnist picked up on that.  But I guess I think of listening as more active than hearing.  Unless we clap our hands over our ears as we did in childhood ‘can’t hear you, can’t hear you’,  we can hardly avoid hearing what’s being said.  To listen though implies a measure of attention.

On Saturday I was involved in an event which sought to provide good conditions for listening.  Ground rules were followed to ensure that those speaking could be heard uninterrupted by a small listening group.  It’s an enormous challenge to give attention moment by moment without formulating a reply.  It allows the speaker to relax knowing that he or she will have time to develop what they want to say and indeed to hear themselves.  Free from the anxiety of having to defend a view or answer a challenge, people speaking can sometimes surprise themselves as well as their listeners.  (Oh for a gender-free singular personal pronoun.  Never mind  grammatical elegance, it might have changed the course of history!)


3 Responses to “Listening or hearing?”

  1. 1 rosemary May 5, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    I think what you want is probably a third person gender free personal pronoun. We have first and second personal pronouns – we fall down heavily when it gets to the third person.

  2. 2 Alison Clark May 6, 2008 at 6:16 am

    Thank you – missed out ‘third’!

  3. 3 rosemary May 6, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Well, that is the exasperating thing, isn’t it? One feels we are so nearly there – we have I – which in English leaves no trace of gender, and you, ditto, and then we get to he she or it – and it just feels all wrong to refer to a person as it\itself. I myself, and I am sure, you yourself, would never refer to the speaker itself. But it would solve the problem, which s\he never could. Never mind that it would get comically near s\hitself.

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