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The Art of Listening by Eng. Gamini Kulatunga

"Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?" - (Zen Inspiration).


The art of communication begins with listening for which silence is an imperative. The knowledge and experience, one has acquired, need to be suspended for listening. It is called ‘bracketing”. Kant thus argued that humans can never have direct access to reality, but only to the contents of their minds.


The rational mind would see exchange of ideas as a discussion or debate but intuition is required to take part in a real exchange what is known as a dialogue.


Forms of interaction


Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.


Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it. In debate, personal experience is secondary to a forceful opinion.


Discussion tends to contribute to the formation of abstract notion of community. In discussion, personal experience and actual content are often seen as separate.


Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding. In dialogue, personal experience is a key avenue for self-awareness and political understanding.


In Dialogue, a group of people can explore the individual and collective presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings that subtly control their interactions. It provides an opportunity to participate in a process that displays communication successes and failures. It can reveal the often puzzling patterns of incoherence that lead the group to avoid certain issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing and defending opinions about particular issues.


Negotiation is a method by which people settle differences. It is a process by which compromise or agreement is reached while avoiding argument and dispute. In any disagreement, individuals understandably aim to achieve the best possible outcome for their position (or perhaps an organization they represent). However, the principles of fairness, seeking mutual benefit and maintaining a relationship are the keys to a successful outcome.




In the word listen are the same letters that make up the word silent. This is a powerful indication that silence is an important part of listening more effectively. If we learn the skill of silence, we also have improved our listening.


Silence implies not mere lack of noise but also mental silence which suspends prejudgment. Eckhart Tolle says that silence can be seen either as the absence of noise, or as the space in which sound exists, just as inner stillness can be seen as the absence of thought, or the space in which thoughts are perceived.


Grounding has to replace anchoring in communication. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making decisions. During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.


Grounding in communication theory has described conversation as a form of collaborative action. While grounding in communication theory has been applied to mediated communication, the theory primarily addresses face-to-face conversation. Groups working together will ground their conversations by coming up with common ground or mutual knowledge. The members will utilize this knowledge in order to contribute to a more efficient dialogue. Grounding criterion is the mutual belief between conversational partners that everyone involved has a clear enough understanding of the concept to move forward.




Communication is the purposeful activity of information exchange between two or more participants in order to convey or receive the intended meanings through a shared system of signs and semiotic rules. The basic steps of communication are the forming of communicative intent, message composition, message encoding, transmission of signal, reception of signal, message decoding and finally interpretation of the message by the recipient. This standard description of communication neglects noise and recoding instead of decoding. These tend to create indeterminate outcomes in communication. Some of the barriers for good communication are:


Physical barriers. Physical barriers are often due to the nature of the environment. System design.


System design faults refer to problems with the structures or systems in place in an organization.


Attitudinal barriers. Attitudinal barriers come about as a result of problems with staff in an organization. Ambiguity of words/phrases. Words sounding the same but having different meaning can convey a different meaning altogether.


Individual linguistic ability. The use of jargon, difficult or inappropriate words in communication can prevent the recipients from understanding the message.


Physiological barriers. These may result from individuals' personal discomfort, caused—for example—by ill health, poor eyesight or hearing difficulties.


Cultural differences. These may result from the cultural differences of communities around the world, within an individual country (tribal/regional differences, dialects etc.), between religious groups and in organizations or at an organizational level - where companies, teams and units may have different expectations, norms and idiolects.


Bypassing. These happens when the communicators (sender and the receiver) do not attach the same symbolic meanings to their words.


Technological multi-tasking and absorbency. With a rapid increase in technologically-driven communication in the past several decades, individuals are increasingly faced with condensed communication in the form of e-mail, text, and social updates.


Fear of being criticized is a major factor that prevents good communication. If we exercise simple practices to improve our communication skill, we can become effective communicators.




The exposure to the scientific method, in studying engineering, has many applications and sometimes extended to realms beyond. Listening is an art rather than a science, it has emotional and intuitive elements which are important to be grasped for effective communication.


Silence required for effective listening has to be developed and strict cause-and-effect understanding has to be suspended to achieve listening effectively. Suspended judgment is the key to effective listening. True dialogue is possible only with silent listening. The base of good communication shifts from empirical facts to consciousness, as the new hierarchy of scientific explanation suggests.

The Art of Listening by Eng. Gamini Kulatunga

Thanks to recent developments in technology, consciousness has become a significant topic of research in psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience within the past few decades. The primary focus is on understanding what it means biologically and psychologically for information to be present in consciousness—that is, on determining the neural and psychological correlates of consciousness.


Cognition plays a key role in communication. Santiago theory of cognition can be encapsulated in two sentences:


Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.


As all interactions take place between living systems, driven by cognition, communicators must be conscious of the four aspects of cognitive functions, especially, in human beings. In Carl Jung's theories of psychological type the cognitive functions (sometimes known as mental functions) are defined as different ways of perceiving and judging. They are defined as "thinking", "feeling", "sensation" and "intuition". The over emphasis on thinking must be balanced with the other three functions in good communication.


Gamini Kulatunga
11th January 2016

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