Listen without prejudice

To focus intently on just one sense is often to experience it anew. To listen – truly to listen – to another soul is to listen without prejudice.

I love the opportunity that writing on this blog gives me to put my thoughts in some kind of order, to try to translate them into clear and succinct words, and then to release them into the world and see where they might land. I am thankful to any soul out there who takes the time to read my words. Should that soul feel moved to respond, I am delighted to listen to what they have to say. I am all ears.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post entitled Listen to understand, inspired the following words from Rick Rubin (spoken during his epic, wonderful podcast conversation with Lex Fridman) on how he approaches the act of listening:

“My goal is not to form an opinion. It’s to understand.”

For my friend Tony Jackson, Rubin’s words resonated with his own work. Tony tweeted to me that close, focused listening is “a core element of executive coaching”. He continues:

“I warn my clients that there may be pauses or silences in the room. Some struggle with it, until I point out that if I’m truly listening then I cannot possibly know what I will say next.”

I love this idea. If you are truly listening to another soul, how could you possibly know what they are going to say next, let alone what you will say in response?

Drawn not only in charcoal, but in sound


Alan Hollinghurst is one of my favourite writers.* Tony Jackson and I have exchanged numerous tweets over the years in appreciation of his books. The other week, I realised that for no good reason I had never got around to reading Hollinghurst’s most recent novel, 2017’s The Sparsholt Affair. Realising the error of my ways, I procured a copy, and am currently immersed in it. As with all of Hollinghurst’s work, the writing is beautiful, engrossing and compelling. He evokes time, place and the subtleties of human emotion, motivation and secrecy like no other writer. Early on in The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst shares some remarkable words about listening. The scene takes place on the roof of an Oxford college tower in 1940. Freddie Green, the narrator, is sharing night watch duty with the titular Sparsholt, vigilant for any sign of German aeroplanes and their deadly cargo of incendiary bombs. The wartime blackout effectively strips Green of his sense of sight, in turn making his other senses more acute:

“I found my first watch the strangest. It was still early, though the indiscriminate darkness disturbed the sense of time. Seeing little but outlines of steeples and pinnacles under a thinly clouded night sky, I observed in another way, with the ears. Standing quite still I was the centre of a townscape drawn not only in charcoal but in sound.”

When you are denied the gift of sight (if you are so fortunate as to enjoy that gift in the first place), your sense of hearing (if you have that gift) may come to feel more acute. You might feel as if you can observe so much more about the world through the gift of hearing. This quality of hearing is always there, if only you chose to focus on it.

Now, smell the rose


To focus intently on just one sense is often to experience it anew.

This brings to mind a brief Zen lesson that I am sure I read many years ago, but which I can’t for the life of me seem to track down via googling (should it ring a bell with any kind soul out there, please do let me know where I might find the exact wording). I will now do horrible damage unto this Zen lesson by attempting my own paraphrase thereof. I think it goes something along the following lines…

With smell the most evocative of senses, the rose cannot fail to transport you to other times and places, to beautiful locations or to the beauty of a loved one.

First, smell the rose, thinking of all the times in your life that you have breathed in that subtle and beautiful scent.

Then banish all of these memories. Forget everything that you think you remember about the rose, all the associations it conjures, everything you think you know.

Now, smell the rose.

To listen without prejudice is to apply exactly the same principle to another sense.

To focus intently on just one sense is often to experience it anew.

To listen – truly to listen – to another soul is to listen without prejudice.**

May today be nothing but kind to and yours.



* Alan Hollinghurst’s other books include the excellent The Line of Beauty (which also happened to win the Booker Prize) and his superb debut novel, The Swimming-Pool Library. There is an odd fact about The Swimming-Pool Library that I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned anywhere online, so here it is: I believe it’s the case that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library was the final book to be read by Kenneth Williams, just a few days before he committed suicide in 1988. Williams mentions it as his current choice of reading material on the penultimate page of The Kenneth Williams Diaries. You never know, this fact may come in useful for you at some point in your life…

** I take the title of this post from George Michael’s 1990 album, the never sequel’d Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1.


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