14 March

Leaving Rage and Righteousness Behind:The Doctrine Of Active Listening

by Jon Katz
The Doctrine Of Active Listening
The Doctrine Of Active Listening

On one of my first visits as a hospice volunteer, I visited a woman, a writer dying of cancer, and I asked her how she was, and she said she was in great pain and eager to die.

“Oh,” I said reflexively, and flustered, “I’m sure it will get better, perhaps this is just a bad day.”

She looked me in the eye, and for a long time, and she said, “please don’t lie to me, I’m not stupid and I’m not going to get better. I’m going to die, and if you want to help me, all you have to do is be quiet and listen to me.”

This was an important lesson for me, and I learned it. I asked a hospice social worker to teach me how to talk to people at the edge of life, and she spent some hours teaching me the doctrine of Active Listening, which every good nurse, social worker, therapist and hospice volunteer comes to learn, if they intend to be helpful and survive in their work.

Across the spectrum of rage and fear and selfishness that rages across our public life these days, I am most struck by the realization that we have forgotten how to listen to one another. We cannot hear the pain and fear and disappointment in the lives of people, and they cannot hear us. On social media, when I say I have lost a person or animal in my life, I was often surprised to see that most people respond by telling me what they have lost in their lives, almost as if we are in a competition.

And perhaps we are, since we all want to be heard, and so rarely are. Facebook, in fact, is rarely about listening, but declaiming, a place to say what we think and we feel, there is very little listening there.

I have this almost Biblical image in my head of vast throngs of people eternally shouting at one another, a kind of cultural Hell in which everyone is screaming but no one can hear, ideas can only be shouted but never heard. That is becoming our world.  Imagine the psychic toll that takes on people on both ends. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, you can just watch any presidential debate.

I am not a Republican or Democrat, nor a member of the “left” or the “right,” but I do think when their candidates gather that no one seems to be listening. The very idea of listening or evolving seems to be anathema now, and I often think of that lovely dying woman in Jackson, N.Y. and the Doctrine of Active Listening.

I see three things I think contribute greatly to people’s inability to listen: the rise of cable news, a corporate, profit-making medium that celebrates argument over reason; the Internet, which elevates and celebrates communication without thought or consequence; and the political culture of the left and the right, which has made listening or compromising a kind of treason. Politics has become, in so many ways, the art of not ever listening.

Politics is especially frustrating, because no one is being heard, no one can prevail, all discussion becomes eternal argument, not reason or persuasion. Facts and truth have no purpose or meaning. This inability to listen breeds hatred and confusion. It has never solved a problem, ever.

Active Listening has become a theology to me, a new way of looking at the world.

I can’t recommend it enough, it changed my life, leeched much of the rage and victimization I carried within me, helped connect me with people and understand the world in a new and wiser way. And it helps me to understand the world in a new way and informs my writing. Active listeners are rare.

Anger, after all, is pointless, it corrodes the soul and spirit.

Ernest Hemingway said “when people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” I think this is so, and when most people listen, they are really just preparing to reply, not really listen.

Active Listening is a special way of reflecting back what another person has expressed. It is a kind of listening that lets the other person know what is being heard, that their true meaning is being understood. It requires focus and concentration, and practice. Active Listening also involves paying attention to cues beyond words – tone of voice, facial expression, body posture. Active listening is thus not possible on the Internet or social media where most of those cues are not visible. You can never really listen to someone through words on a computer screen alone.

Active Listening is about boundaries. It is not my job to tell a dying person they are not dying. That is just another way of lying. It is my job to listen. It is not my job to tell someone who is following a leader I dislike that they are wrong, it is my purpose to understand why they feel so differently than I do. Active listening breaks barriers, it does not erect or condemn them. I have found than when I listen to people – and this is often hard and complex to do – they become less angry and more human, right in front of me. You can see it happen.

That is the challenge of Active Listening, why it is often so difficult to do. It asks us to suspend our own judgments, reactions and evaluations so that I may consider the judgments of others and have a clearer experience of other people’s thoughts and feelings.

I met a supporter of Donald Trump last week, he is – this won’t surprise you – a politician who puzzles me and disturbs me in many ways.

I asked this very angry man to tell me why he supported him so completely, and I resolved to practice the doctrine of Active Listening, and this man was transformed in front of me as he told a wrenching story of disappointment, disruption, and in his mind, betrayal by every political figure he had ever followed. He had been laid off time and time again, forced to move, saw the idea of a secure job vanish until he no longer believed in it. His was the tale of a person who felt he had never been heard.

He told of working in an Amazon warehouse, ultimately fired because a weak ankle kept him from meeting the package quotas he was assigned, a computer attached to his belt gave him away. Computers don’t lie, said his boss.

He told of seeing every good job he had ever known leave the country and take town after town with it.  He talked of the things he could not ever do for his children, and how his family had struggled alone with him to find a place in the world. Just maybe, he said, there is someone who cares about me, not just people from other countries.

This man and I do not see the world in the same way, or have the same  views. But after I devoted myself to listening to him fully, and actively, and with an open heart and mind, he became quieter, less angry, he revealed a more human and compassionate side of himself. He regretted how things were, he said, he regretted how angry he had become. I didn’t reply to him or argue with him, neither of us needed that.

I did not walk away feeling the way he did, and he was not interested at all in listening to me. Active Listening is not a doctrine of magic pills or myopia, it is not a magic want to wave away discord. But it kept my own anger and frustration at bay – I didn’t feel either – I saw another human being struggling to figure out how to live in the world, just as I am. And we had connected.

I see, I thought, I never quite got this, we have lost the idea of listening to one another, we have learned only to shout louder than everyone else. Some people hope to find their better angels, some don’t.

So Active Listening has become a doctrine in my life. It helps me in my marriage, with my friendships and perhaps most importantly, it helps to keep me grounded, to feel as if I understand the world a bit, rather than just stand around screaming on Facebook or at some political rally. It helps me in my writing too, the more I hear other people, the more I see humanity and have more to share.

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