Listen!

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The first duty of love

is to listen.

- Paul Tillich


very human being exists in a universe of one. Inside each of our heads is a reality that we alone understand and that we alone experience. Stored in our minds are all the moments we have been us, by ourselves, trying to figure out who we are and why it matters. All these moments coalesce to make up our inner world. While we may share many beliefs and much day-to-day activity with others, we are utterly disconnected from everyone around us. This truth cannot be overstated. We cannot read the minds of others to know for sure what they are about. Nor they ours. The positive side of this truth is that we have privacy while we tinker with the design of that personal universe. The down side encompasses both loneliness and the fear that we are doing it all wrong.

Here’s where listening comes in.

When done well, listening grants a grand boon to two people. The listener is allowed a glimpse of the speaker’s universe, and it is beyond reassuring to be able to compare another’s interior designing process to one’s own. And the speaker is provided with a witness to their internal work who can stipulate that the work appears to be at least understandable and maybe even impressive. Even though these reassurances do not fully close the existential gap between any two humans, they provide us with sufficient reality testing to allow us to keep on truckin’.

Because human psychological growth happens in connection with others, and listening well creates connection, we need excellent listening skills in order to grow.

A couple of caveats upfront: We don’t always have to listen, and you probably know most of this already.

Sometimes people are just nattering on and we only have to lend them half an ear. When someone is talking about himself in a vulnerable and serious manner, however, he is creating himself, real time, in front of you. To treat that cavalierly is to create a double loss. You will both lose any existential insight that might result from an effective conversation, and you will each lose the potential deepening of the intimacy between you.

If you decide to listen, then, you are signaling a willingness to participate in a sacred human ability. Listening is something that only humans can do because thinking out loud is an exclusively human trait. Other animals hear, only humans listen. And, if you decide to listen, you will want to do it well, so I have gathered some concepts and some tips about good listening skills here for you to review.

Conceptual truths about listening

 

I and Thou

- Martin Buber

You Just Don't Understand

- Deborah Tannen

That's Not What I Meant

- Deborah Tannen

Women's Growth In Connection

- Judith Jordan, Alexandra Kaplan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver and Janet Surrey

 

The best conversations occur when one person is willing to think out loud and the other is willing to deeply attend. This is hard work on the part of both participants. The speaker has to take the risk inherent in presenting material that is a work in progress. The listener has to engage all the skills listed below. (BTW, this process of discovery and intimacy underlies all good therapeutic relationships with clients bravely verbalizing their current thinking and clinicians providing expert listening.)

The goal of listening is to understand the subjective other in order to perceive a small corner of their worldview map. This phenomenological stance, the subject of much existential writing, endeavors to perceive a first-person point of view describing the experiences of the other as the other. It also stipulates that what the listener seeks is an understanding of the speaker as of this moment in time. (For an introduction to the concept of phenomenology see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/.)

Coming to understand another as the result of skilled listening always involves stretching to become slightly more than you were before the conversation. If you rightly believe that everyone has something to teach you, you will naturally approach a conversation with a willingness to take in new material. Put another way – true listening requires curiosity, and curiosity is only possible if you are willing to be changed by an encounter.

I want to reiterate here what I have written elsewhere that thoughtful listening does not imply agreement. We listeners are entitled to disagree with the thoughts of our speaker, but only after we are sure we have completely understood his or her message. Too many folks feel the need to jump in instantly with a crisp rebuttal the moment they find the speaker’s position untenable. It is absolutely possible to listen thoroughly, provide empathy and absorb the other’s perspective without losing your commitment to your own perspective. Conversation is neither a competition nor a zero sum game.

Good listening skills provide the opportunity for as total a connection between two humans as is possible. Because it spans the three domains of human experience – behavioral, affective and cognitive – when we well and truly pay attention to another person we are offering them all of ourselves. Our behavior is stilled as we commit to quietly listening. Our emotions are activated as we strive to use them empathically. And our thinking is engaged as we undertake the work of decoding the material being presented to us. If the speaker is willing to share deeply and we have the skills to patiently attend, the existential gap between us will narrow, providing an extremely high level of intimacy. For a lovely treatise on building a genuine encounter with another person, see I and Thou by Martin Buber.

Skills for good listening

Let’s start with the physical. Skillful listening requires settled attention. That means you should take a moment to get comfortable, calm your thoughts and relax your body before you signal that you are ready to listen. To maintain the peaceful pose while the other person is talking, sometimes a break in the listening action is required in order to take care of any distractions or discomforts. (Note: It is not impossible to listen well while walking with the speaker or while doing simple tasks together, but it is much, much more difficult. The highest level of listening occurs in a quiet, pleasant place with the two participants at rest.)

On an emotional level, the listener works to connect with the feelings that the speaker is demonstrating or that the material being presented would typically evoke. That will require the listener to put the material in the context of the speaker and to imagine the resulting emotional charge for that person. Empathy is only possible if one has inside themselves a rich codex of feelings that they have experienced first hand to use as reference material. Without that, the emotional overlap between the one talking and the one listening will take on a primitive, mad-sad-bad-glad quality.

Another emotional challenge a listener faces is trying to feel out the expectations of the speaker, both with respect to the speaker's content (what is being spoken about) and also the over-arching sense of wishful thinking that the speaker has for her universe. For example, it is good to wonder about what the speaker hopes will result from her conversation with you – agreement, feedback, sympathy, humor, suggestions and so on. Also, what do the words being spoken suggest about how the speaker wants her universe to be? These aspirations will be expressed in fragments of emotions that the listener will weave together to create a sense of what the person talking wants from this conversation and from her world.

You can see, then, how emotional intelligence is paramount in an effective listener. This construct is easy to comprehend and, because the human brain is designed to be highly emotional, it actually takes very little effort to develop.

Cognitively, in order to be a good listener, you have to be willing to work your mind extremely hard. If you start with the understanding that the speaker is an authority on himself and his universe (which is the subject of much feminist writing), you will realize that all conversations are, to some degree, cross-cultural. The reality of the person doing the talking will manifest in its own language, with familiar words being used in slightly different ways. We must, as skilled listeners, fight the tendency to presume to know just what they mean. Because the only way to access another’s universe is through language, we must strive to be slightly bilingual. In other words, we listeners need to think about what the other chose to say, how she or he chose to say it and what that might mean. A simple example would be use of the word “embarrassing.” If someone is telling us about a situation that we think would be about a seven on the Great Embarrassment Scale of Life, we have to think about whether or not the speaker would have the same reaction as we would. Even if the speaker says “I was embarrassed," we don’t know what intensity they mean without clarifying. Women tend to be very good at calibrating words with questions like: “Do you mean forgot-someone’s-name embarrassed or wardrobe-malfunction embarrassed?”

If we are trying to think like expert listeners, it behooves us to pay attention to our thoughts as we are listening. By that I mean, are there any cognitive functions going on inside us that might distort the material that the speaker is trying to transmit? For example, are we generating hypotheses about the speakers intentions, correctness, intelligence, sophistication and so on as we are "listening?" If so, we might want to check those conjectures at the door.

Good listeners continually remind themselves to wonder rather than assume. It's harder than you may think to not presume that you know what the speaker "really" thinks or "really" means or "really" intends. But, to the extent you can minimize those assumptions, you pave the way for contributing to an extremely fruitful conversation.

To summarize, it’s helpful to think of good listening practice involving the following steps: settle, bracket, open emotional codex, engage naïveté, and clarify.

• Settle: this physical commitment to being ready to listen reminds you to up your listening game and signals the other that you are ready to do so.

• Bracket: to bracket yourself back means to temporarily withhold your judgments. It doesn’t mean to not have judgments – for as Camus reminded us: To breathe is to judge. It means to hold them back far enough in your mind that they don’t interfere with your willingness and ability to understand the point the speaker is trying to make. Bracketing back your view of the world will help you avoid double vision as you try to imagine the world being described to you.

• Open emotional codex: Even though we know that feelings come from the brain, this step feels like it is located in the human heart. When you open your heart – your emotional range of experience – and ready it to serve as an empathic guide to your listening, you are preparing yourself to share the emotional world of another. This is a generous act because both negative and positive feelings will be part of the mix. You are giving up your peace of heart to enter into their, perhaps very unpeaceful, universe. If your codex is a little on the lean side, take some time to enhance this part of you with some reading and discussions with others.

• Engage naïveté: This step will allow for the process of seeing through the eyes of the speaker. What this means is that you predecide not to presume. No matter how basic the wording the speaker is using, double check as you are listening to see if there might be another way to interpret the words. If there is any doubt, clarify.

• Clarify: It takes courage, patience and creativity to communicate back to the speaker requests for clarification. It may feel stilted to use phrases such as “Do you mean” and “Are you saying,” but the speaker will be gratified that you are working to understand him. There is, however, one caveat…you have to also demonstrate the fact that while you are listening you are also working on putting what you are hearing into the context of this particular person. If you do nothing but ask elementary questions, you will be annoying. So don’t ask things you should already know about this person or that you should be able to figure out with a little thought.

(N.B. It is important to understand the rules of eye contact when listening. People erroneously believe that you have to maintain near-constant eye contact when you are talking and when you are listening. That is not true. That is a stare down. What is supposed to happen is: the speaker looks away while talking with occasional “check-in” moments of eye contact. By looking away, the speaker frees the listener to look carefully at the speaker, which allows the listener to harvest all the other rich, nonverbal sources of information about the person speaking such as facial expressions, body posture, etc. The listener will look away if she wants to grant the speaker privacy during an awkward moment, if she needs a moment to think about something the speaker said or if she wants to signal that a break in the action is coming.)

Conclusion

To some extent, cursory listening is both unavoidable and acceptable. No one could possibly maintain the steady focus of active attention across the board. But it would be nice to learn to listen well so that we can switch on that skill when we want to participate in the intimacy of deep conversation. It is also satisfying to be practiced enough to be able to drop into a quick, bond-building listen at a moment’s notice.

When we choose to attend closely to another, we are sending them a message of love. It is beyond generous when we agree to replace the cold silence of the Cosmos with the warmth of reflective listening.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.