How Are You Listening?

By Mary McAllister, 67. She lives in Jacksonville, USA. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Most mornings, as soon as I wake up to the unrelenting but cheery sun lifting the darkness (it is Florida, after all), I go out for a walk.  I put on a pair of those ubiquitous, stretchy, cropped pants, a T-shirt, good running sneakers (although I don’t run, just walk as if someone were chasing me), and take a bottle of water.  And then, it’s out the door, past houses with Lady Palms and European Fan Palms and ferns and the rough beige-edged weed that passes for grass down here, where everything is tenuously perched above a base of water and sand.

I take my phone to record my thoughts, to somehow note my own inner voice.  But, lately, I have what seems to me to be fewer thoughts of any substance.  What I have are “earworms” (thank you, Kai Rhyssdal of NPR), those songs or pieces of songs that you may not even like, but which are on some continuous loop in your head and there is nothing you do can get rid of them.

I thought about these earworms when I considered the quote by Stephen Covey, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Are we more intent on our response than on listening to what is being said?  That would imply that we spend a lot of time inside our heads, bombarded as we are with things that demand our attention—phones, with their beeps, dings and chimes (and any number of sounds we could choose, as we are ruefully reminded when we hear someone else’s choice of sound blaring out from inside a purse or a pocket).

But, Covey says that the kind of listening we need to really understand—empathic listening—requires us to inhabit another person’s frame of reference.  The question is whether we can even achieve that without shutting out the thousands of bits of external intrusions that prevent us from hearing our own voice and developing our own frame of reference.  For it is by developing our own ability to listen to our innermost thoughts and feelings that we can hope to develop the ability to judge without judgment, to really hear with our heart, our mind, our understanding, and from that place, to enter into “another person’s frame of reference,” as Covey says.

Imagine what would happen if it didn’t matter what the input of the world was, a world in which you had the ability to block out distractions.

“Quaaack, quaaack,” from the phone of the woman next to you.  Beyonce telling you to “Listen” from your own playlist, a video from YouTube telling you how to finally fix that pesky leading (leaking?) toilet, the gentle screeching of the commuter train brakes, all while trying to catch up on the news of the day—perhaps the most intrusive sound, even when you read it in silence.  All these things prevent you from becoming acquainted with your own frame of reference and your view of the world.  That news you’re reading is no longer just news.  It’s news with opinions presented to save you the trouble of formulating an opinion of your own.

We hear all these things and we let them form our opinions without listening to what we really think, inside ourselves.  And, perhaps most importantly, our own thoughts are so hard to access because we have our own “earworms” of hardened beliefs that we don’t take the time to examine. These internal earworms and these bits of outside information then take the place of an informed mind, soul, conscience, or whatever you want to call the individual consciousness.

In a New York Times series on the Science and Art of Listening, Seth Horowitz wrote that “Listening is a skill we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.”  And, yes, digital information is everywhere.  But, the inability to listen, degraded as it has been by digital information, is not a new phenomenon.

“It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled with…” Shakespeare wrote in the 16th century, long before we had the capacity to digitize and crunch poor Henry IV onto a tiny bit of a byte.

The malady of not marking—“Didn’t you hear what I said?” “You’re not listening”  “Do you understand?”  are common questions in the discourse dance we do these days.  But, maybe it’s because we’ve lost the ability to listen to ourselves, without judgment, but with discernment.  There are hundreds of “mindfulness” books and apps and courses to try to help us be aware of ourselves and our surroundings in a meaningful, way.  But, mindfulness alone won’t teach you how to think nor will it help you inform a conscience.  It’s a great practice, but it’s a single-source paradigm, just like the news and all the other sound intrusions.

We need to be able to go further than mindfulness to a state where we can listen to many sources and refine for ourselves what we think about all this information.  It’s the only way we have a chance to hear—and listen with empathy—to an opinion that is different from our own.  Covey says that “empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”

While that may be difficult to imagine, especially in these polarized political times, perhaps some small attempt at that kind of listening would result in, if not a steel and brick bridge of understanding, a few steps over a rope bridge between jungles.

So, how do we get there?  Right now, there’s an app called “EarForge,” whose aim is to help you develop “relative pitch,” something musicians prize.  It offers brief training exercises “that hone your ability to identify notes relative to others” in 30 days, no less.

What a concept!  What if there were an app to teach us how to listen—first to ourselves—and then to all sources of information, to all different opinions, with a view to ridding ourselves of our own internal earworms—beliefs that prevent us from really listening to all sides of an issue? Some practice that would help us achieve that unique ability to fully enter into another person’s frame of reference.

You’d train your ability to gather all kinds of information:  “that’s a D sharp”; Ina Garten’s recipe for Skillet Roasted Lemon Chicken; Martha Stewart’s ideas for design; the Republican plank on free trade; the Democratic belief in the primacy of human rights; and the musical value of hip hop; and you’d then be able to make a blue and red cake that was purple in the middle where the two colors blend, positioned on a plate you’d hand-painted, all to the tune of “Hey, Now.”

Funny, yes, but maybe what we need is something like an app to exercise our ability to sift through many sources of information and even our own staunchly held beliefs, to get to a place where we could really hear each other.  Empathic listening, yes; the ability to inform and train your consciousness, yes; the ability to synthesize so much diversely sourced information, and arrive at something like a perfectly pitched frame of reference, one that would help us to “fully, deeply, understand…another person, emotionally as well as intellectually,” as Covey explains. We could start by really thinking about what we believe and why, devoid of any outside input.  We could just practice, tack one examined belief onto a session of mindfulness.  It might really help to improve our public discourse and ease the polarization so apparent in our society today.

If only it were possible to design such an algorithm, I’d say, please, someone, get busy.  But, better yet, maybe I could practice replacing one “earworm” with another form of training.

Then, not only could I get to a place where I was more able to really listen and enter into someone else’s frame of reference, but I could replace the earworm I have sometimes as I walk by small ponds surrounded by tall grasses swaying in the warm breeze and get stuck on the idea that a gator could heft his prehistoric body out of the water and start aiming his snout toward me to the tune of whatever earworm of a song is playing in my head.

5 comments on “How Are You Listening?

  1. Kimberly Miller on

    Love this beautiful and insightful commentary. I believe that the timing of this is perfect. When a country is so divided by values and principles that block out the empathetic listening we really need to start evaluating our origin of our thoughts and hear ourselves first as well as understand why we listen a certain way. This author hit it out of the park in my opinion and opened up a very good dialogue…if even just for us to have with ourselves. Great article!

  2. Alex Nelson on

    An inspiration! To stop thinking about ourselves, and concentrate on the other person. When you care ENOUGH to actively listen, not always easy, but truly important for a relationship to flourish.
    Thank you Mary, for this amazing article!


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