What does it mean to listen? To hear sounds? To interpret sounds? To find meaning in sounds? To react to sounds? Or is it something else?
I was recently involved in a dance discussion group on social media. I participated in one discussion that went very sour, and watched two other very interesting, potentially valuable threads do the same. The one that stands out in my mind was started by someone posting for friend who wished to remain anonymous. The friend was a young woman who described a common occurrence: being complimented on her dress at a dance. She expressed how uncomfortable she was having so much attention put on her body, which is what she felt when complimented in this way. Responses ran the gamut. Some said that it was no big deal, or told her to just get over it. Some said that when they complimented someone's dress, they were honestly just complimenting the dress. Some expressed support and demanded change in the dance communities. Some said that compliments should only be given to close friends to avoid the risk of misunderstanding, and proposed policies on giving compliments. Some said that we should stop discussing this and just dance.
Many of the comments turned nasty. Tempers flared. Name-calling and personal attacks became the cornerstone of many of the responses. The original issue often got lost. I wanted to chime in, to bring together the many viewpoints expressed, to explore the richness and complexity of this issue and the feelings it brought out in so many people. I saw so many facets at once, and wanted to show how they are all part of what was happening, and suggest ways to see and understand and interact. But by the time I had enough time to write a response, there was no discussion to be had. It had become an argument, a fight, a battle of wills. No one was listening. So I decided not to respond at all. And I left the group.
Listening, in the sense that I'm talking about, does not take place at the ears. It's not about the sounds. It means opening to and understanding someone else's experience. The woman at the dance felt uncomfortable with the situation. Listening means accepting and acknowledging that. Everyone knows what it's like to feel uncomfortable in a situation. We can all relate. We can all put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. The same goes for the person who just wants to be able to say something nice. And the person who is angry and wants to ensure that no one ever feels uncomfortable. And the person who just wants a lighthearted, fun time at a dance. Each one of us has probably been in every one of these positions at one time or another.
I am disappointed, dismayed, and distressed that so few people were willing and able to listen to others in these "discussions." It's an election year, and there are now many discussions about politics and political candidates. I have seen people who are friends lash out at one another in anger. I have seen people who are normally very sensible or caring bear down, defend themselves and their views, and attack others. If we can't even talk about how we interact in what is ostensibly a fun, caring dance community, what hope do we have of discussing issues and solving problems like healthcare, inequality, terrorism, and war?
The only way we can begin to approach a solution is first listen to the perspectives of others. How do they see the world? What are their hopes, dreams, concerns, worries, fears? Imagine what it would be like to feel that way. About anything. Or about nothing. See past the content, and understand the viewpoint, the perspective, the experience. That is listening.
How does one go about getting others to listen? "Getting" is not the right word, but I don't know what is. Convince, entice, encourage, inspire? When discussions are heated and the stakes seem high, when people are predisposed to making their point, nothing I or anyone else says seems to make much difference. What might move you from arguing to listening? What stands in the way? What can you do to listen more? What can I or others do to help you listen? I welcome your comments and ideas. In all of my interactions, I promise to practice listening. I hope that others will as well.