Ode to Listening

I love listening, and I am still learning how to do it. Listening is the core of my practice and the seed of my growth. Listening is the wellspring from which so many rich insights and contributions flow. Listening invites a softness of awareness and self. To listen, I first acknowledge that there is a reality that I perceive through my senses that exists outside of me, and to understand and connect with this reality I need to allow space around my opinions and beliefs for new information.

When I think of listening, I think more broadly than simply receiving auditory data. The inner mechanisms by which I make sense of the data is also part of listening. The physical presence of the person speaking is a facet of this listening, what their bodies are doing or not doing. Watching their gestures and nonverbal communcation is a facet of listening. Perhaps I am speaking of something more broad and inclusive than listening, because at times seeing and feeling are facets of this listening. Perhaps I mean observing, but observing often has this connotation of being clinical and removed from the situation, even though we now understand that the observer and the observed affect each other.

Francis of Assissi, by Eugenio Hansen

I like listening to things that are not human. The wind, the feeling of sadness that wells up within me at surprising times, the grunting-squealing sounds my dogs make. When I allow myself to pay attention to these things, I am often surprised by their complexity of sound and the depth of information received. When I am listening, my intuition organizes the sensations and providing some insight or interpretation that has some truth value. To access this truth requires being in relationship, to remember that what “I think” is not the sole determinant of truth.

So much fails when I take my perceptions and beliefs as true and listen only for what corroborates these things. When I listen in this way, I’m less likely to learn, less likely to connect. I may become defensive or combative, pushing back against information that challenges what I think. I mis-hear things and do not doubt my experience. I hear Taylor Swift singing about lonely Starbucks lovers and create a whole story about what I think her song is, until I learn those were not her lyrics at all. Or I try to listen to someone in pain and, through my discomfort and perhaps well-meaning intention to connect, I assume that I’ve shared their pain. So I jump on the conversation, take their language, say “Oh the same thing happened to me, this is how I dealt with it.” When I listen in these ways, I cause alienation and hurt to others. I respond as though my beliefs are the truth and dismiss or overlook what the other person is trying to share with me. I become more occupied with being right than connecting.

I once thought that the beginning of anger was the end of listening, but I was doing a disservice to anger. Even with conflict, there can be listening to what in me feels angry, what needs care, justice, or a boundary; and being open to the anger of others in the situation. It’s harder for me to stay with listening when there is anger, but if I feel safe then I can re-engage. I can offer my point of view firmly so that we can have a clear conversation, we can know what is at stake for each other and perhaps better understand why we’re disagreeing. So often I listen to arguments between people and think that on some level they are in agreement, but there is some difference in language or emotional quality that causes each to think the other is in conflict.

I am still learning how to listen. I often forget. I often retreat to what feels known because part of me thinks I’m not ready to learn something new. Some part of me grows weary of openness and wants to simply react. I am listening to that, too. I am doing my best to notice when I’ve stopped listening, take a breath, and try to hear something new.