Another Tip for Better Listening

One day several years ago I was fishing with my good friend Dave when I heard a slapping sound nearby. I had never heard that sound before and I was startled.

Dave also heard it and immediately said, “Did you hear the beaver?”  He told me it was the sound of the animal hitting his tail against the water. He then proceeded to identify the different animals and birds that live near or on the creek. They provide a calliope of unique sounds if you will just listen and learn to identify them. After that conversation I became more aware of not just the beauty of the creek, but also the sounds of wildlife that inhabit the area. As naturalist John Burroughs said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and have my senses put in order.”

You see, sharpening your ability to recognize sounds will also encourage you to listen to other stimuli around you. Learning to listen is not just a technique or a process; it is also the practice of distinguishing one sound from another. You may have thought that crying babies all sound alike. When you have a baby of your own, however, you soon discover that your baby has a unique sound that you can identify from all other babies’ cries. One reason is that you have practiced listening for his or her voice, whether crying or cooing.

Make it a goal to learn to identify sounds, for that will also help you to develop the self-discipline to listen actively to people. Can you distinguish among the sounds of the siren of an ambulance, fire truck, and police car? Can you tell the difference in the sounds of a shotgun, rifle, and pistol?  Then if you want to dance to Latin music, can you tell the difference in music for the cha cha, the salsa, and the tango?

Twenty years ago, my wife and I began taking ballroom dancing lessons. Until then I have to admit I could recognize country and rock n roll music, but I did not understand the unique sounds of the fox trot, the rhumba, and the waltz. Then I learned the steps with each style.  Connecting the sound to the appropriate dance steps helped discipline me to listen more carefully in other areas of my life.

As music theorist and composer, John Cage stated, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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