A Still Mind | Listening


February 11, 2016  •  7 Comments

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.


A Still Mind
Thank you for your comments, Ani. I appreciate how much consideration you've given the questions I asked, your reflections on them, and especially your honesty. I think you're right that feeling heard is a big part of why we (and others) often don't listen. It can be very hard to open to listening to someone who doesn't seem to be hearing you.

And thank you for your comments, Steven. "Active listening" is a good way to put it. I can't help but be a little disappointed, though, that we need to qualify listening with "active." It does seem that most "listening" that goes on is inactive--giving the superficial appearance of listening without really paying attention.
Steven McAfee(non-registered)
As usual, I liked reading what you wrote. It sounds like talking with you, and that is something I always enjoy. Good example with the dance conversations - so typical of what happens all the time. I have a good friend who worked for years in hospice, and one the the terms they use is "active listening." They describe it the same way you do. I wish more people had experience and models for genuine listening. The simply ability (and willingness!) to understand how someone else sees the world and how they are experiencing it could solve so many of our problems.
What struck me most about this post were the questions at the end that summed up all that you had written: "What is it that can move me from arguing to listening? What stands in the way?"

The answer to the first question is sometimes "Nothing!" The answer to the second question (for me) is often anger, which is rooted in fear or pain. Removing that is the only thing that can change the answer to the first question.

Sometimes wanting to be heard overrides all inclination to listen. So, the more people feel "un-heard" the less inclined they are to listen. It just circles back on itself. So, when I am not listening, is it because I feel that no one is listening to me? Sometimes. Often it is because I don't feel what I am listening to is worthy of merit. I need to remember that everyone I meet knows something I do not know. Everyone. It may not be something I am interested in knowing, but for me that isn't the point. The point is, they know something I don't, and are, in some situation, somewhere, of much greater value than I...which is a great thought to hold in order to overcome ego!

I want so much to be someone who listens to the perspectives of others. I am so often not that someone. Spending time with you is something that inspires me to try a little harder to be that person.

"I promise to practice listening".
A Still Mind
That's an excellent point, Shoshana, and one that I hadn't thought of--if/when we realize how much we cause ourselves to suffer by not listening, we will begin to look for and hopefully learn a better way.

And thank you for sharing your experiences and techniques for listening better, Marcia. Those can definitely be good ways to recognize how little we listen, and to practice listening. I also find that by practicing listening, we can shift the conversation and lead others to listen more. Some of the time, at any rate; and when it's done in-person. It doesn't always work, in my experience. Some people at some times just don't seem inclined to listening, no matter what happens. And when it's in writing as part of an online conversation, people often don't get the sense/message that I am listening, even when I am--the in-person cues (tone of voice, physical posture, etc.) just don't come across, and it's much easier for people to only read part of a message and fire back with one of their own.
I find that the only way to "get" others to listen, is to listen myself. That is SO hard and requires lots of practice. There are lots of techniques to help learn this skill: Emptying my own mind of assumptions and agendas before someone starts talking, so I can respond to what they actually said versus what I thought they were going to say (or what I hoped they were going to say, so that I could respond with whatever *I* wanted). Taking a deep breath and counting to three before answering. Asking myself, "What are three different perspectives from which I could view this idea?" And so on. One exercise I've found particularly helpful is to eavesdrop on others' conversations, when in restaurants etc. When you do that - REALLY listen to them, and how they interact with each other - you'll notice that most people do not really listen to each other. It is amazing. And when you notice others doing it, you can start noticing yourself doing it. I'm glad you wrote this blog post to remind us - listening is key.
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