The Lost Art Of Listening
When I joined my Quaker Meeting in New Jersey – I am still a member – I worked on a conflict resolution committee, we offered ourselves to the community and to one another in the Meeting to help resolve conflicts and arguments. The Quakers have been doing this for centuries and they are scholars of listening, and I was amazed at how well thought out and effective their practices were and are.
The first lesson was about leaving some space in between one thought and another. When someone said what was bothering them, or offered a thought or opinion, at least a minute of silence, often more, was required before the other party of person could speak. That way, they had no choice but to listen, to slow the discussion down, to make sure one side was heard and the other was listening.
It was really stunning to see how much a difference this made, how any conflicts were quickly resolved.
In our culture, listening is rarely taught or practiced, especially in the new forms of communications online and in the political world and on various social media. Ideas are given macro-seconds to live, before they are challenged, exploited, co-opted, disagreed with, misunderstood or ignored.
I want to admit right a way that I am often a poor listener, so full of my own ideas and experiences and so anxious to express them, that I do not listen as well or as often as I would like to.
True listening is an art, it is a very difficult thing to do well. Many people are concerned and upset over the state of our political system, but what troubles me the most is not the election of Donald Trump, but the feeling that no one is listening: not him, not the people who hate him, not the people who love him, not the left or the right, not the people who vote.
Cable news is a horror, a gladiators death dance to the very idea of listening. How would people learn to do it?
The people in politics don't listen to one another, they certainly don't listen to me, and when I labor to listen to them, I am always grateful for it, i always learn something and grow in some way. I am always working at it. But is also a lonely and disconnecting experience.
We rarely think about listening, but we sometimes think listening as easy because it looks passive and instinctive, but in reality it’s hard work. Really listening (and not just appearing to listen) requires intense concentration and a good deal of mental energy.
Listening can be difficult for a few reasons. Perhaps the hardest is that we think three to four times faster than people speak. That means we could listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute, but the average person speaks only 125-175 words per minute, making it easy to become impatient or let your mind wander.
Social scientists also have found that when we listen, most of us tend to do one of four things; judge what someone is saying, and agree or disagree; ask questions from our own experience and frame of reference; offer unwanted advice, solutions and counsel; analyze the motives and behavior of others based on our own motives and behaviors, not theirs.
On my Facebook Page, many people don't even bother to read posts, they are most often simply launching points for their own thoughts and experiences. For their ideas, not mine. If my dog dies, they tell me about the death of their dog, if I am unhappy, they tell me about my unhappiness, if I have an idea, they tell me about their idea or the ideas of other people.
In a sense, this is a new and very democratic medium. But is is awful for the understanding of others and their ideas, it is revolutionary for the ease in which thoughts can be expressed, devastating for the meaning of thoughts and ideas and their survival. New media teaches us to seek out people who share our ideas and shun or attack people who are different or who differ.
i love the ideas of other people, I breathe them and soak them up, it is my work, but I weep for my ideas sometimes, they do not live long or go far in this kind of world. They hardly get to breathe.
Essentially, Thoreau went to Walden Pond to think and share his thoughts. He could never have written Walden in our time, because no one has that much time to think.
His ideas would not have lived long enough or survived long enough to make it to a book, or even been noticed in a culture that worships screaming and conflict, elevates the sound bite, and has abandoned the very idea of listening for the idea of arguing and shouting and messaging, at no cost, at any time, on any subject.
I am often asked to do interviews for media about the things I write books or blog posts about, and last year, I began telling producers and bookers that I would not participate in their shoes if they were set up as screaming matches rather than genuine discussions. I have turned down an awful lot of interview requests, producers are just stunned when I say that, they don't traffic in discussions, they are fight promoters.
They don't really want my ideas, they want an argument. There is no circus any longer, we are the circus. For me fights kill ideas, they don't nourish them or celebrate them, I won't be a part of that. On my Facebook page, I often tell people they are free to disagree with me, but not to attack me. That's my boundary.
It is sad that most people do not listen to understand, they listen to reply. If you look at our political system, the wisdom of that thought is instantly apparent. The nicest – and rarest – messages I get say thanks for making me think. The most common always start with I strongly disagree with you, or I read you even though I often disagree with you, unconsciously acknowledging what a rarity that is.
This is so rare a phenomenon that people are proud of themselves for saying it.
I often feel my ideas and the ideas of others are stillborn, caught in the womb of thought, unable to live, see the light or breathe. How can anyone really listen to an idea when they are bombarded by thousands every hour in so many forms?
The Quakers know what many Americans, cable news panelists, spouses, family members, politicians and the members of the left and the right have forgotten: that listening, an art under any circumstances, is critical to a civil society, it is an art that is dying and fading from memory.
German analyst and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a classic, largely forgotten book on the subject, The Art Of Listening,
In his book, which consists of a series of lectures, Fromm details the obstacles, mindsets and dynamics that helps us to listen as an art, as a path to good relationships, as a way of growth and learning and living in harmony with one another.
Listening is difficult, we have few role models or sources of encouragement in our lives.
Yet listening is essential to peace of mind, intellectual growth, compromise and understanding. It is central to love and life in a democracy. When we fail to listen, our structures begin to break down, as is happening now.
When we fail to listen, we fail our personal as well as political connections, our children, siblings, lovers and friends. Almost every relationship I know of that has collapsed has been lost partly or entirely because of a failure to know how to listen.
I worked hard to be a good father, but I deeply regret that I did not listen to my daughter as carefully as I should have, too often I spoke to her rather than listened to her. She suffered for it.
Drawing on his 50 years as a practicing therapist, Fromm offered six guidelines for mastering the art of unselfish understanding.
1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener. One can't pretend to be listening, or just be waiting for the chance to reply.
2.Nothing of importance must be on the mind of the listener, he must be free from anxiety as well as from greed.
3.He must possess a freely working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
4.He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it was his own.
5.The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him – not in the erotic sense but int he sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
6. Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.
I believe if I cannot learn to listen well to others, then I am incomplete as a human being, and cannot be the man I wish to be, the father I wish to be, the writer I wish to be, the husband I wish to be, the friend I wish to be, the citizen I wish to be.
I am well aware that the world seems to be going in the other direction – just watch the news, see the people we elect, or look at what passes for dialogue and listening on Facebook or Twitter.
How many listeners do you know?
My hospice and other therapy work with Red has helped me tremendously, this work requires listening the purest and most active level. Maria and I have always listened to one another, but I still sometimes talk over and around her, still sometimes seek to reply and declaim more than listen.
But when that happens, we stop and truly listen to one another, and that is an experience filled with joy and connection for me. I hope one day to fully practice the Art Of Listening, I can hardly think of a nobler thing to do.