What do we actually mean when we use the word listen?
Hearing is not the same as listening. To listen is a mark of both of humility and respect. A quote attributed to Socrates records: “Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue – to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.” And of course if we are not speaking we are listening, right? The attention required to actually listen with our whole being is more demanding than at first appreciated. To truly listen is to take in information with every sense faculty.
In everyday conversations we are so conditioned to be expedient with understanding, that we default to analyzing and preparing our response even before we have finished listening. We may hear, but do we really listen? Listening is truly a two way engagement process. It is a means towards communicating – the common union of exchange.
If we consider the act of listening in the context of communication, we are actually seeking information. We want meaning. We do this inorder to learn, express our opinion, defend a position, make a statement, be agent-provocateur, or even convince others or sell something be it concept idea or product. This act of listening needs not only the ears, but the eyes, the brain, perhaps other sensory or conveyancing mediums such as touch, body language etc. So is it really fair to say that we only use our ears to listen? Of course not. What about our emotions? And if the metaphoric heart is at the seat of emotions, surely we also listen with the heart!
I love the African holistic gesture of communicating: The recipient or listener, even in greeting, has right elbow supported in the palm of the left hand, whilst the palm of the right hand is offered in opened gesture. We see something similar with gestures in religious ritual and worship where, with open hands, we hope to receive. And my favourite from the Tao Te Ching: “Allow your softer, more intuitive and less dominating feminine qualities to rise to the fore, so that you are surrendering rather than dominating , receiving rather than broadcasting, loving rather than fighting”. Yes indeed, listening is an act of loving too!
Is it possible to listen as a pure receptor, empty vessel, before we process what we take in and then respond? For surely when we react we have only made a superficial interaction –from whatever our subconscious or the mental conditioning that rules us at that moment. (And we can all relate to trying to listen to someone when we are in a bad mood! When we say we are listening it seems to me that we imply that we are preparing to respond – in other words, considering, analyzing and then exchanging. Yet to listen first we must not be in response preparation mode! Now that is a big ouch!
To listen is to deal with power. We empower the other, with the authority to express. Even if the person being listened to has stronger power, by listening, we endorse that energy. Equally, in the act of listening, we too have power to either allow our act of listening to continue or to control it. The question is: who is the listener in the moment? Is it just a human intelligent quieted vehicle or is it a conditioned vehicle merely listening through a conditioned or pre-conditioned framework? A classic is when people from different cultures – social or organizational engage in conversation. Even if vocabulary is similar, use and meaning may be different according to the values and behaviours of each. How many times have we heard it said in reflections of lessons: Assume nothing! Yet if we listen, we have a better chance of not jumping to conclusions let alone making interpretations and assumptions.
So how does listening work? Did you know that we spend more than fifty percent of our communication effort in the natural acts of listening? That is with all our faculties. The sad truth is that our retention barely sustains itself at a quarter of what we heard!! We have already said that we use more than just our ears to listen – in fact what we are doing is creating meaning for ourselves.
Researchers are united in a number of suggestions to help us improve our listening abilities:
- Silence – not just the ‘shut up’ variety, rather the act of stilling one’s inner noise and programming.
- Hone your listening skills by sorting through what you are hearing!
- Give feedback to who is talking by way of encouraging them.
- Be emotionally present and responsive.
- Use breathing techniques to relax. Even ‘Hakuna Matata’ helps!
- Be aware of doing mental ‘space travel’!!
- Lose yourself to the spirit and mood of the engagement.
- Allow your body language to respond.
- Summarise and clarify in your engagement.
- Welcome and appreciate the opportunity of listening.
- Enjoy exploring the listener, the listening and what is heard!
What resources do we have to help us listen or indeed improve our listening? Have you noticed how commercial messages and the cinema experience is about dominating your space so that you have to drown out everything else in order for your attention to be held? Do we really need that stimulation to claim that we are listening? I don’t think so. Yet the more we tolerate it, the more such mediums continue to believe that that is the way to get our listening attention! Think twice before you shout your communications! Simply, we have the choice: To listen or not to listen. For either decision there is an opposite and equal commitment and processes!
If we have truly listened in even moments of our lives, consciously or unconsciously, this changes us. Sometimes, reflecting on life’s journey comforts you with knowing you have listened.
“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it” said Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK).
I was present when this great master JK said: “I hope that you will listen, but not with the memory of what you already know; and this is very difficult to do. (He starts with the now familiar pose of sitting on his two hands – I understand he did this to control involuntary movements of his hands. His gaze is at the ‘aura’ of the audience!). You listen to something, and your mind immediately reacts with its knowledge, its conclusions, its opinions, its past memories. It listens, inquiring for a future understanding. (Here he gestures with his hands and fingers pointing to his heart not his head).
Just observe yourself, (few seconds pause as he very gently shakes his head as if willing you to follow with understanding), how you are listening, and you will see that this is what is taking place. (He holds his hand palm facing you in that classic ‘stop’ hand signal). Either you are listening with a conclusion, with knowledge, with certain memories, experiences, or you want an answer, and you are impatient. (Long slow drawn out head movement that says – yes of course we do this!) You want to know what it is all about, what life is all about, the extraordinary complexity of life. You are not actually listening at all. (Now his hand is in fingers together mode – in other words, you just want the ‘net’ of it not the whole!)
You can only listen when the mind is quiet, (he closes his eyes and gently nods) when the mind doesn’t react immediately, when there is an interval between your reaction and what is being said. (Few seconds of stillness). Then, in that interval there is a quietness, there is a silence in which alone there is a comprehension which is not intellectual understanding.
(His eyes still closed),If there is a gap between what is said and your own reaction to what is said, in that interval, whether you prolong it indefinitely, for a long period or for a few seconds – in that interval, if you observe, there comes clarity. (Eyes wide open staring out with a sharpness). It is the interval that is the new brain. (Broad smile and head nodding. Sitting again on his hands). The immediate reaction is the old brain, and the old brain functions in its own traditional, accepted, reactionary, animalistic sense. (He looks left and right across the audience).
When there is an abeyance of that, when the reaction is suspended, when there is an interval, then you will find that the new brain acts, and it is only the new brain that can understand, not the old brain” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti.
I wonder, if to truly listen after such life times of mental conditioning, we may be helped by thinking with the paradigm shifting concept of: Listen with your new brain!