How to Listen, for a Change

Mind the Gap

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

[Ernest Hemingway]

Listening has become a rare skill. In a visual and written world we are losing our ability to pay close attention to what we hear so we can respond to what is happening in new ways. We react to situations mostly based on memory because we are not aware of our thinking.

In The Responsibility of Form: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, semiotician Roland Barthes explains the distinction between listening and hearing. He says, “Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act.”

Hearing is always occurring, most of the time subconsciously.

In contrast, listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves.

Listening can be understood on three levels: alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how the sound affects the listener.

Although most of us acknowledge the importance of listening to improve our understanding, learn new things, and enjoy new experiences, when it comes to the actual doing, we fall short.

This is probably because nobody teaches us how to listen explicitly. We are born, develop a sense for what is dangerous in our environment, then fine tune our ability to turn off some of the stuff we find distracting. But we hardly learn how to turn off our thought process and memories to have direct experiences of situations in real time.

We cannot respond to new situations when we hold onto what we may remember happening in previous ones.

Jumping to conclusions

In Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together William Isaacs says, “one of the ways we sustain the culture of thinking alone is that we form conclusions and then do not test them, treating our initial inferences as facts.” Which may be one of the most common reasons that prompts us to notice that history repeats itself.

To illustrate the dangers of basing our thinking on a personal assessment and not direct experience Isaacs recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis. He says:

Some thirty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, several academics brought together the Russian, Cuban, and American leaders in charge at the time of the crisis to reflect on the causes of this near-devastating conflict.

A series of three meetings were held in Boston, Moscow, and Havana. Included on the Russian side were Ambassador Dobrynin, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko, and son of Nikita Khrushchev, and the Soviet generals responsible for installing the missiles in Cuba. American participants included Robert McNamara, Ted Sorenson and other members of Kennedy's inner circle, and for the Cubans, Fidel Castro himself.

Simply getting these leaders together was an important step toward greater dialogue about international conflict. Their meetings revealed some important facts not previously understood or well known, and shed light on the disastrous consequences of drawing conclusions.

One important component of this crisis was the fact that the Cubans installed missiles without notice ninety miles off the coast of the United States. A U-2 spy plane caught sight of these and noted one striking fact: There was no camouflage on them. It seemed to some in Kennedy's inner circle that the Soviets were aggressively moving forward, not even bothering to camouflage their missile installations.

Thirty years later another side of the story emerged. As it turns out, the Russian army, which installed the missiles, was accustomed to installing missiles in Russia, where there was no need for camouflage. Like any good military bureaucracy, when ordered to install missiles in Cuba, they did it the way they normally did: without camouflage.

Some three decades later in conversation, the Russian general in charge of the installation made it quite clear that there was no ulterior intent in leaving the camouflage off. What was taken by some as clear evidence of aggressive intent was essentially based on an erroneous presumption.

When we draw abstract inference from our experience, we miss new data. But that is not all. When we jump to conclusions, we then progress from the conclusions to assumptions we make about subjects, and adopt the results as beliefs. Once we get to the belief stage, we entrench ourselves into a position, thus making it much harder for us to change our stance. In this sense, beliefs are limiting.

Paying attention to the actual “data” that precedes our conclusions can help us improve the quality of our inquiring mind.

Figuring out what's missing

How do we overcome our automatic patterns we've contributed to building over time? What can we do to become more realistic about our actual experiences?

What should we do to improve our listening skills?

Thinking slow

Paying attention to how we listen is not easy because the landscape of our memories is filled with things, sometimes painful, we can readily recall. “Disturbance,” from an emotional situation that happened in the past, for example, “usually leads people to listen in a way that is self-confirming: They look for evidence that they are right and others are wrong.”

Looking to disprove

Learning to use discomfort as a lever to look deeper into its cause can help us see what we've missed. Are we the source of the difficulty? Is there a memory of a similar situation that occurred in the past that we are imposing on others who were not part of it? “Listening in this case becomes reflective,” says Isaacs. “We begin to see how others are experiencing the world.”

Minding the gap

Are we walking the talk? Do we do what we say consistently? Have we examined our actions to see if we are creating the problem? “No one acts consistently with their words,” says Isaacs. “Some of us are more aware than others of how large this gap is, how systematic it is.”

Noticing resistance

We can learn to observe our reactions to what someone else is saying without fully embracing them, to keep them at some distance. Are we projecting our opinions onto them? Is our distortion shield on to protect ourselves from new information? Isaacs says, “If you watch, you may find that there is an almost irrepressible tape in your mind that plays, especially when you feel a reaction to another.” 

Standing still

We're so used to hitting the ground running that we have not cultivated the ability to pause. When we quiet our mental chattering and physical busying, we are able to let the information sink in. We may even find this a very relaxing stance. “Think of this as calming the surface of the waters of our experience,” says Isaacs. “So we can see below to the depths.”

A world of possibilities

When we are in a hurry, we should slow down. This is a piece of advice my mother gave me a long time ago —it works. It was probably something her mother taught her. There is a reason why popular sayings continue to be, well, popular. They are a simple synthesis of hard-earned wisdom.

Poet David Wagoner captures the advice a Native American elder gives a child lost in the woods, “Stand still, the trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.” We can find our way when we take our place as part of it —by staying still, noticing resistance, minding the gap, looking to disprove, and thinking slow.

Listening is hard, but it doesn't have to be that way.


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