If You Listen

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

Karl A. Menniger

I’d be hard-pressed to name a human quality that I find sexier than the ability to have a compelling conversation. In particular, the art of listening.

Which is ironic because I’m gradually losing my power to do so. But I have to put listening on my top five favorite things to do list, top five most important aspects of a healthy relationship list, and top five needs beyond the basic ones list.

Of course travel is on those lists too. And now that I’m thinking about it, it occurs to me that traveling is often an excellent opportunity for listening, and listening is in turn one of the main keys to blissful traveling, and my approach to listening is a lot like my approach to travel, and my traveling is so very much like my listening, and OMG my brain is turning into a hamster wheel …

{BAM – hamster wheel is now officially stopped. Sparky, dude, you’re getting wayyy too excited in there. You must chill.)

Got a little ahead of myself there — let’s back up a few thousand feet or so.

Echo, the Elusive Goddess

I have more than a few thoughts on the big-picture concept of listening, gathered over a few decades of exploring this superpower, but I think I can condense it all to three main aspects:

  1. Listening is a learned skill. Whatever abilities we are born with to listen to the world around us and hone in on our parents’ voices, we seem to lose as we become more aware of our own separateness, our selfness. Understanding the other becomes blurred into the background. Then we have to build up any sense of mastery from the depths of our self-absorbed abyss. We start recognizing that listening feels good. We want more of it in our lives. Many people also realize that other people are part of what make our lives centered, purposeful, and oftentimes delightful — and that it’s hard to nurture those connections if you don’t know how to truly listen every once in awhile.
  2. Listening is fragile. It’s easier to spend the time that a person is talking, thinking about what we want to say next. It’s ridiculously more natural to interrupt with our own thoughts and opinions, than to patiently focus on grokking the other person’s message. Even after many years of practice and fine-tuning our attentiveness, the oh-so-human default is to tune out. And don’t get me started on the role of cognitive biases in the whole she-bang — how even if we technically “hear” the words, we can’t comprehend them when we allow our brains to fall into the lazy habit of only processing the ones that reaffirm our existing, anchoring information and opinions.
  3. Listening is a gift, as enriching to give as to receive. I have a physical, emotional, and secularly spiritual (hush now, I’m allowed an oxymoron) response to giving another person my full attention, and actively listening to what they have to say. I cherish it more and more each day, as the sounds of the world gradually disappear. I’m a tiny bit haunted by a future of hearing being a memory of my youth (right up there with smooth skin and joints that don’t ache). Barring some extraordinary leaps and bounds in medical research, listening is — for me and many unseen others — a temporary privilege.

So … I feel like I should pause there for a moment, for the blogger’s version of station identification and clarification.

Namely, I hope my wistfulness won’t be mistaken for self-pity. Or that my mention of my progressive hearing loss doesn’t come across as whining and moaning or self-victimizing and all that jazz.

And if you’re new here, you probably don’t have the background on my philosophy about hearing loss and other challenges in life, nor the time or interest to go through my blog to try to figure it out.

Here’s the short version: I’m excited about my future in the d/Deaf community, when sound is officially no longer a comfortable mechanism for me to interact with others. It will bring me a whole new viewpoint on the world, and I’m kind of a superfan of diverse perspectives.

I’m also keenly aware of what hearing sound affords me. I have centered my life around it for some time now. And sometimes the ephemeral nature of something makes it that much more valuable.

My point is less “woe is me”, and more that, until the time that I legitimately can’t hear dialogue, I want to milk the opportunities for “classical listening” as much as possible. I also want to take this moment to honor what the ability to hear has done for me throughout my various chapters of existence.

Whew, thanks for bearing with me there. We will now return to our regularly scheduled article.

Learning to Listen

I had a conflicted relationship with listening as a child. On the one hand, I loved hearing the various stories and slices of knowledge passed along to me by my parents, sister, teachers, and friends; on the other hand, I very much lived in my own head, and frequently “turned off” the continual clamor of my environment in order to focus on the object of my interest (TV, books, crafts, thoughts, dog, diary, etc.)

As a student, I adored being called on to voice my thoughts on a concept or literature or an answer to a reading comprehension question. I was “that girl” in social science, arts & lit courses, where part of your grade was participation. If I knew the answer, I would enthusiastically step up to share it. And I had the theatre training necessary to project across the room from the back row, so my teachers and professors usually loved to call on me.

Outside of the academic world, however, listening was often all I felt comfortable doing, except with my innermost inner circle. I had more than a touch of social anxiety, and preferred to let others fill the silence with their stories. Knowing that all I had to do was smile, nod, and ask a probing question once in awhile, with the reward of being showered with interesting stories far and wide — ah, you were now someone I was incredibly excited to pin down in a corner and let the hours go by.

Then came The Listening Ear.

Part of my pursuit of a bachelors degree in Psychology involved doing some volunteer work “in the field”. I chose to volunteer at a crisis hotline. Our phone counseling approach focused primarily on active listening, and involved three main components: 1) empathizing, 2) paraphrasing, and 3) problem solving. (Emphasis on the first two – step 3 typically occupied approximately 5 minutes of a standard half-hour call, if it happened at all.)

This experience had a profound effect on my understanding of what it means to listen.

It’s right there in the components: Empathy. Paraphrasing. Minimal solutioning, if it happens at all.

Because in a lot of cases, people aren’t interested in hearing your brilliant ideas about how to sort out their chaos. And when it comes to phone crisis counseling, you don’t have time to gather all the levels and layers of information to make a strong case for your solutions anyway.

I would go one step further, and argue that your solutions are almost always going to fail, regardless of how long the conversation, because generally people in crisis mode aren’t talking to you to be told how simple it is to make their life better, and the implication that your solution is simple is going to trigger that inclination in the depressed mind that nothing will work, and they will subconsciously (sometimes consciously) sabotage your solution and then come back to you to prove to you just how much you suck.

Or the solution does work, and then they feel like they need to talk to you, and get solutions from you, for everything and nothing. Which ultimately doesn’t help them either.

But again, that’s not really why most people want to talk to someone when they’re feeling overwhelmed by emotion.

They want to talk because they want to feel heard.

They want to talk because they feel alone, and confused, and are having a hard time sorting out what is going on with their brains.

They want to talk because they need a sounding board.

And the lesson I took from my days at the Listening Ear is, the best thing to do when someone wants to talk is to listen.

That’s it. Just, listen.

Actively if you can — letting the person know you’re there, acknowledging the emotions you’re picking up from them, paraphrasing once in awhile to confirm you’re understanding their side of the story. But otherwise, shutting up and taking in the totality of what they’ve decided to share with you.

It’s harder to do than I thought, when I first started, but so much more rewarding and helpful than I’d ever imagined.

It completely altered the way I interacted with the people in my life, and my self-awareness of what I want from my friends when I’m in a jam. And I’m so glad it did.

Cross-Cultural Listening

Just a few thoughts on this topic, because I love it enough to want to mention it, but I know it could take up a whole blog of its own (and I don’t mean just a single post).

The act of listening to another person happens all the world ’round. It is inherent to communication, no matter where you live and what language you speak. But the manner in which we listen? Hoo boy, that’s a whole different ballgame.

In Japan it’s polite to use aizuchi, which are sounds that show you are actively listening to another person. Here we call it “backchanneling”. (And I absolutely adore it.)

European countries have significantly more conversation response overlap when someone is speaking (often perceived by the other countries as rudely interrupting).

Even the content of the speaker’s words is interpreted differently across cultures — Asian and Arab cultures are more focused on how something is said (the environment where the dialogue is happening, the tone, who is involved in the conversation and how their status compares to the speaker). Western cultures are all about the “what”, sans context.

Of course I’d be remiss to not mention that the things we can “listen” to are not only audible but physical. Words and tone alone aren’t what makes for communication — expression is a full-body experience, and the skilled listener pays attention to it all. This is true no matter what part of the globe you reside in.

Again, these are generalizations — the armchair psychologists out there will know that it’s hard to take cultural conclusions and make them work for all the various individuals in that culture. But I find the trends fascinating.

Hush, Hush – Voices Carry

Holy info-dump, Batman.

I’m pretty much done with the backstory on this one … except to mention a side-issue that I’ve been paying a lot more attention to lately.

And that is, the art of interruption.

One of the most interesting parts of getting to “middle age” in my lifespan is how much more I’ve been valuing the stories I have to tell, wanting to suck the marrow out of all the remaining moments I have to actively tell them (apologies to my significant other, who is enduring this “phase” of my philosophy on life with utmost patience and kindness).

I now need to reckon with occasions where I’ve been in mid-thought, pausing to come up with that perfect word, and then boom — enter the interruption.

Lately I’m also even noticing it in my own conversation style, that weird urge to leap into someone else’s pause for breath and fill the silence with my own take, and bend the exchange toward the direction of my choosing.

Past-self-me would be totally fine being interrupted. It essentially meant that I was let off the hook, no need to continue with the “performance”, entertainment duties have officially passed to the other side of the court. Ball successfully volleyed.

But these days? These days, I crave more of that balance. And I’m not super sure when that started, but I do know that it’s where I live now.

Maybe it’s that I don’t feel like I’m performing anymore, or perhaps I’ve gotten enough of a taste of true listening at this point that I want another glass of that sweet nectar. Someday in the past, I woke up with my dial having moved to the center, driving me to want the opportunity to voice my views on life, the universe, and everything just as much as I want to hear other people’s views.

End result: I’m more in tune than ever with how amazing the art of listening can be, and how important it is to continue to strive to be better at it.

Great Listening is Great Traveling

All of that brings me to my ultimate point, which my twisted brain was struggling to make at the beginning of this winding road:

Listening is to travel what travel is to listening.

A fantastic conversation is a two-way street. Both people sharing compelling stories, but ensuring that those stories are connected. Paying attention and being drawn in by what the other person is saying, and then matching that with comments and insight that draws them in, in return.

Same thing for a fantastic trip. My best journeys have been when I’ve been open to what the location has wanted to share with me about itself, and when I have been willing to share a bit of myself as well. Both ambassador for where I come from and constant learner of the land that I’m now visiting. Amazing vacations are more than “seeing the sites”; they involve wrapping your chosen locale around you like a blanket, and letting your scent seep into its threads. Wandering done right is a communion.

At the very least, a good trip requires the ability to listen. To observe, with minimal judgment. To seek to understand.

Most places I’ve visited, I’ve found the people have been as interested in me as I have been interested in them. Don’t get me wrong — most folks love to be asked about their town, their lives, their passions. They will go on for hours if you know the right time, tone, and content of your prompts to go on, tell me more, you don’t say? Even so, my favorite encounters have been that uncanny, organic back and forth, and the undeniable sense afterward that we’ve each gained something both immeasurable and invaluable from the other.

The vast majority of these conversations have been with bartenders, of course. And the person seated next to me at the bar. Couples sitting at a nearby table. Musicians taking a break between sets. Other tourists staying at the same bed and breakfast, and very frequently the owners of the bed and breakfast as well. Tour guides, Uber drivers, wait staff, bus drivers — each and every person is a complete individual that has entered your orbit.

I recommend a little interpersonal savvy (to identify behaviors that are indicative of a person you’d want to avoid talking to), but with a little wisdom and aplomb, a vacation destination becomes as much about the who, as it is about the what. Understanding the people proves to be an inseparable, critical aspect of understanding the place.

Thanks for Listening

In summary, in case you missed it in my rambling: listening is sexy, anywhere and everywhere you go. Possibly the sexiest thing in the universe. So let’s get on that, people. Let’s make the world a sexier place, for you and for me.

That’s it. That’s all I got.

For now.

3 thoughts on “If You Listen

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