Our ears don't hear, our brain does - or so I believe based on what I was told. Playing off of that, could we think of listening as an intake of information from all pertinent senses? A breathing in and absorption of language, images, data - a stream to digest into comprehension.
We choose when to switch off the listening stream and turn on the output: the talking stream. Have you experienced anyone who never seems to switch -- a pure listener, or non-stop talker? When we switch to processing what we've taken in, listening isn't really possible anymore. The listening has stopped. If we are distracted while listening, we get an interrupted stream - a corrupted version of what we were intended to receive. We can distract ourselves, too. As I am not always fully present, and therefore not taking it ALL in - words, inflections, body language, facial expressions, context - I find that I frequently respond, unwittingly, without having all the info.
Talking, relating, communicating - in other words, the process by which we share experiences, is phenomenally complex on the neurobiological level. Not that I'm even a neurobiology novice. But, like "common sense", communication seems like something that would come naturally and without practice or education. Hee hee. Just because we can speak our primary language fluently and think we've expressed ourselves with crystal clarity to someone else who speaks that language... doesn't mean we are guaranteed understanding. Oh yeah, that's right, part of communicating is listening!
As I grow in awareness of the gaps in my listening, I see how the Zen-thousand things distract me ( because I choose to distract myself with them). Bears taught a class at Extraordinary Man where he spoke of our "background noise" - the little thoughts zooming around in our mind while we listen. I categorized those zooming little thoughts, as Bears suggested, for a month or so. Then I simply "forgot" to do it - and how useful it was. I'm excited to remember that! I look forward to seeing how my listening improves and continuing to take in how I intake... Oh, um, did you say something?