This article is part of a larger feature called “The Future of Crisis” in The Crisis Issue.

Asimple question: What if nations and societies around the world face heightened risk today because people find it increasingly challenging to listen well?

For skilled listeners in unfamiliar and potentially threatening environments, the first signs of warning and welcome flow from cognitively processing and interpreting sound with accuracy
 and a sense of proportion. We teach young children to be safe by asking them to pay close attention to strangers’ intonations, as well as other clues that inform their sense of danger. Mindfulness-based stress reduction implores students to observe thoughts and feelings without judgment as they attend to potentially anxiety-provoking bodily sensations, life circumstances, and human interactions. Militaries instruct special operations forces to listen deeply in simulated enemy territory for the same reason: to dynamically sense threats and opportunities and to act decisively to protect themselves and comrades.

Perceiving risk, identifying opportunity – and tuning into others’ needs and one’s own environment – are intimately correlated with listening. Yet, as the 21st century becomes more fraught with systemic risks and threats such as economic reordering, growing depression and anxiety, and an increased likelihood of extreme weather-related events, chronic stress at the population level may diminish people’s ability to listen effectively. The upshot: Since long-term stress affects inner-ear physiology via the glucocorticoid cycle, chronically stressed individuals and communities may find it harder to absorb emotional, material, and environmental support because they aren’t able to process and thus perceive its very existence.

Consider the implications of reduced listening quality on a global civilization that’s stretching macroeconomic and ecological fundamentals. Even as systemic risks and threats grow, impacting organizational decision making, highly stressed individuals within organizations and communities of practice may not recognize internal and external patterns that could in influence their organizations’ futures. They may not listen as well as usual to the spoken and unspoken clues that signal misaligned perception, risk, opportunity, and action. These phenomena may repeat themselves even in essential public sector disciplines, such as public safety, public health, disaster and emergency management, which address long-term risk in preparation for municipal, regional, national, and sometimes even global shocks.

For businesses, long-term planning is a likely casualty as short-term volatility dominates C-suite decision-making patterns. For consumer brands with the most to lose – as people’s diminished listening abilities impact loyalty and profitability – there is a crystal-clear implication: The advantage goes to those consumer brands that invest in studying and responding to consumers’ desire to be heard, as well their desire to experience listening as an invaluable source of calmness and interpersonal trust. This may be among the great societal benefits of arts and cultural organizations in the 21st century: their capacity to encourage listening, engage scarce attention, and foster genuine bonds of interpersonal and community-based trust during the next quarter century of macroeconomic, psychosocial, and sociocultural uncertainty and upheaval. Here’s to consumer brands and arts and cultural organizations building innovative partnerships that encompass the human need to listen and, by listening, to thrive.

the author

Sanjay Khanna

Sanjay Khanna is a strategic foresight expert and the first ever futurist-in-residence at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.