This morning my husband and I had one of our rare fights. He asked me if I had seen anything interesting during my online skim of The New York Times morning headlines. I began to describe my reaction to an Op-Ed piece written by Alexa O’Brien about Amazon’s use of the helper technology that shares her name, a reference to the Greek goddess who defends and protects. I was explaining what Ms. O’Brien had written, along with how and why I had reacted to it. David interrupted me, eager to show what he thought he understood about what I was talking about. His motivation was pure — he was excited to engage in dialogue. Today’s electronically-mediated conversation had left him feeling cut off from real-life up-and-back with people whose body language he could reliably translate. Most of all, he wanted to re-establish contact with me, his beloved wife, and to show me that he was available to share a bit of worldly news or opinion. (See last week’s post on Sharing as a way of showing love.)
In his eagerness, however, he failed to take the time to listen to what I was actually saying. His need to contribute, to show me that he was paying attention, and to engage, cut off the very exchange that I was trying to initiate. In the Introduction to this year-long series of posts, I described how critical to the happiness and longevity of a relationship appreciation for each other’s priorities and perspectives is. The easiest way I know to develop that appreciation is through listening to what the other is communicating, how it is being transmitted, and why the messages are being sent. Decoding a partner’s style by asking these questions can go a long way to helping each other treasure both similarities and differences that define how much of the other is permitted into the relationship. The more complete people can be to each other, the more love can flow freely between them.
What do we listen to?
A person. Above all, in a relationship, we are listening to a person. Words, expressions, tone of voice, inflections, body language all help define that person at a moment in time. We can read emotion, impulses, desires to be closer or more distant through a simple face-to-face communication. Note how much of that message is never conveyed when an email — or, worse, the short-hand of a text message or twitter post — leaves out what Mehrabian documented was the majority of the meaning in a communication that goes beyond the transmission of stark information.
Stillness. We listen to the silences. By nature they can be ambiguous and thus we interpret them like a Rorschach blot — do we hear a silence as hostility? A punishment for some elusive affront or neglect? Withdrawal? Or is it an invitation, a request to join in that which can only be heard in silence? The outer world in all its nuance or the inner world, not disrupted by distraction? Perhaps silence is a tribute, a signal that one’s words are meaningful and warrant reflection. Perhaps it is a pause, a chance to gather more data on additional contributions to the conversation that can reach beyond words. Following service on a jury, I was astonished at how well the lawfully required silence between and among the jurors led us to listen to and trust each other’s opinions and perspectives.
Inner voices. When the world is filled with chatter, the “still, small voice” that comes from within can become very hard to hear. Whether attributed to angels (messengers of God?), to conscience, to early-childhood conditioning, or to neural pathways being activated, that voice brings additional information about how a person is reacting to what is being said or offered. Clearing the space for it to be heard and taking the time to listen can broaden and deepen the truths that enter into conversation.
Outer messages. The research of Tamar Gendler led her to coin the term “aliefs”, for those unconscious beliefs that we hold and that guide behavior in spite of conclusions we form based on objective reality. When we better tune into cues from our external world and their influences on our reactions, we can become more aware of the discrepancies between our rational and irrational convictions. This is very important in relationships because our behavior is motivated more by aliefs than by rationality. Being able to attribute their sources to the proper stimulus can prevent relationship misunderstandings. For example, if I am edgy because I have been exposed to a jackhammer outside my window for hours, I need to understand that my negativity results from that assault and not from anything that anyone has done to offend or interrupt or otherwise annoy me.
Help. By listening carefully, we can hear cries for help and offers to provide it. Dependence on technological assistants like Alexa or the woman in the GPS bypasses our human needs to be able to touch another person in a positive way and to know that others will want to be there and to help us when help is needed. Unfortunately, greater reliance on transactional exchanges rather than altruistic or communal ones lends itself to distortion of appreciation of our human connection. We wind up doing business instead of empathy or generosity of spirit.
Alerts. We receive both real (e.g., sirens, screams) and manipulative (e.g., advertisements, emotional blackmail, or negative family dynamics) messages demanding our attention. When I hear a sense of urgency, I immediately evaluate its legitimacy. Relatively few demands are indeed urgent. When I respond to others as though there is an emergency and there is none, I inevitably resent allowing my own attention and flow to be hijacked. With my training as a clinical psychologist, I should know better than to automatically respond before taking a deep breath to evaluate the situation.
Music. The world is filled with music in countless forms, rhythms, scales, expressions, permutations. Careful listening helps us attune to the huge range and diversity in music and its effects upon us. Appreciation of resonances can help us manage our moods and connect to other people who share a similar resonance. Just imagine the music you most appreciated during your high school days. Best guess is that those who grew up prior to MTV videos will hear the music in their heads while those who were born later will see films that accompanied the music. At this most basic level, music can sort us into cohorts and fuel perception of similarities. Those identifications can either be starting points for exploring our commonalities and differences or a way to put blinders on as we make assumptions about others based on a tiny piece of information.
How can we listen?
We can listen for clues. The point made above, about music, brings us to the most important thing about listening. Use it to gather clues and NOT to make assumptions. William James observed that we are born into a world filled with “buzzing., booming confusion”, we look to organize our impressions into shorthand, ideas then concepts, so that we can think more efficiently. Concepts expand into scripts and then scripts result in expectations. Listening carefully gives us clues to where those assumptions are incorrect. We need to be open to hearing information we think we already know and to understanding that radically different perspectives are quite possible.
We can listen with silences. By being comfortable with silences, we can allow another person the time to formulate their thoughts into words. By allowing the space for such reflection, you communicate respect. In addition, silence can make space for later sharing an observation about wherever someone’s attention may need time to go. For example, redirecting focus to a gorgeous sunset or the humor in a traffic situation can bring opportunities to shift to the present moment and move on. Sharing in this way can be a deep way of showing love.
We can avoid getting sidetracked into crafting our own responses. In our rush to want to identify with someone else’s point or to underscore our comprehension of it or bring an additional idea to the conversation, we can easily get derailed into following our own associations and lose track of what the other is saying.
We can acknowledge fear of missing something outside of the conversation. This admission can help us practice turning down distractions. When a conversation is compelling, the outside world can slip away. A desire to always “know what is happening” can corrupt the pure energy of focusing attention on someone else just as insistently as can a smartphone. Of course, life is real and it is also important that people can be brought to attention in a true emergency.
We listen to the meaning of words. Words are, however, only symbols. They represent an item, an experience, eventually a concept or even an entire thought or situation. From this perspective, words are supposed to represent the reality they describe. Yet the same words can have different meanings to two people. Careful listening to the other allows us to identify their disconnects.
We listen to expressions of emotion through voice, gesture, body language, as well as through words. The consistency between words and what they are meant to express or describe becomes a major clue to when a message should be explored more deeply. A parent who growls in a raised voice, “I am not angry!”, scowling and folding his arms defiantly across his chest, confuses his family.
We listen through signs and coincidences. The universe has a lot of built-in redundancy. Often when a message bears repeating, it is indeed repeated. For example, the synchronicity of a stormy day when one needs to bury a loved one who was not ready to die, or of a traffic jam that insures someone who needs to slow down will do so, underlines a message. A sense of humor can shift negative emotions as the situation provoking them is viewed in a new light.
We listen through all our senses — our eyes and ears and even our kinesthetic sense brings us information in its most concrete forms. By listening to how a person experiences joy or sadness or anger, we can better grasp all the ways in which he or she communicates.
We listen with our bodies. When we are touched, when something or someone reaches us at a deeper level, we react viscerally, each of us in our own unique ways, those selected through a combination of biological disposition, experience, explicit training and implicit instruction, such as from the culture that surrounds us. Pay attention when you feel a chill, a quickened heartbeat, a pain in a joint or in your head.
We listen for information that may fragment the message being sent or form the illusion that it is complete. Just as we are hardwired to identify the straightness in a line, the balance in a design, the asymmetry in our bodies as they do a yoga pose, we can note when a message is complete or when its components are chaotic. When our energy flows freely back and forth, listening becomes a dance in which partners take turns leading.
Why do we listen?
To connect. Above all, we listen to connect to each other, to feel that we are not alone.
To learn. Our bodies and brains are organized to comprehend the world in which we live and, in most cases, the people who inhabit that world. One of the most powerful ways in which we learn is through listening. Hearing is the first sense to fully develop. Indeed, a baby responds to the sounds of its mother’s voice and heartbeat while still in utero.
To understand. We yearn to appreciate that we are not the center of the universe and that other people bring perspectives, needs, beliefs and ideas that can help us form a more accurate picture of the social world in which we live. In loving, understanding requires that we recognize both how we are alike and how we are different and that we find ways to honor both ourselves and the ones we love.
To be able to help. Altruism flows from a fundamental aspect of human personality. People come into the world with different levels of the temperamental qualities that eventually become the personality trait of “agreeableness”, a combination of compassion, a desire to help, and interest in the welfare of others. Bill Graziano and his colleagues have shown how “agreeableness” can be a powerful motivator of kindness in human relationships.
Who listens best to you? How do you know that he or she is listening? How are your feelings about the person affected by their listening (or not)? And to whom do you listen most carefully? What efforts are required to do so? Are there rewards? Have you changed your listening habits and behaviors since childhood?