31 Dec 2008

Eastern and Western approaches to listening

Posted by paulandrew

930142_beatiful_nature_1-scxhu-c-trnavackaOver the past several months I’ve read several books on listening and have discovered a very interesting spectrum on which most books can be placed.  It has to do with “extra time.” Let me explain.

Consider the notion that listeners can listen faster than speakers can talk. We’re talking up to 125 words a minute for a fast speaker versus 400 words a minute of compression for an astute listener. Thus the question becomes “in that ‘extra time’, what should the listener do?”

At one end of the spectrum is the grand old book of listening, Are You Listening? by Dr. Ralph G. Nichols, written back in 1957. In his book, Nichols talks about the situation of the “tortoise talkers – hare listeners” and offers that listeners should make full use of this “extra time” by mentally reviewing and analyzing what the speaker has said so far.

As he puts it:

The listener thinks ahead of the talker, trying to guess what the aural discourse is leading to, what conclusions will be drawn from a word spoken at the moment.

To me he seems to be saying that in those moments of silence, there’s really nothing to be gained by simply being present. Or at the least, it’s more valuable to be intentionally processing what the speaker has said, than to just sit there. I see this as a “Western” point of view that says that I have to be doing something consciously intellectual in order to add value.

The other end of the spectrum can be found in the book Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening where Kay Lindahl explores a more “Eastern” view of what to do with this extra time. She observes:

The way we listen to others has a clear impact on the quality and depth of the conversation. Many times we think we already know what the other person is going to say, so we stopped playing close attention. A voice going in our heads which says, “I know that,” or “yes, but what about this and what about that,” or “that will never work” or “you have no idea” or “that’s not right.”

And she goes on to write about connection:

Deep listening occurs at the heart level. It is present when we feel most connected to another person or to a group of people. Our hearts expand our capacity to communicate with those of different beliefs and customs increases.

It seems to me that there is something very important and special going on in that connection between speaker and listener, in spite of this difference in speed.  And if I as a listener am busy trying to analyze what the speaker has said previously, and am trying to guess where they’re going next, that connection just isn’t going to be as tight or as meaningful.  I just can’t be fully present and open to this person in front of me, as their process unfolds, and at the same time be consciously processing what they just said.

That isn’t to say that processing doesn’t happen at all when I’m just really present.  But possibly that processing is done at a deeper, subconscious level, but I don’t need to put any focus attention on it.  I just developed a deep sense of understanding of what the speaker has been talking about, and “without even trying” I just sort of get it.

In this worldview, I focus my attention on the process of being present and connected, and trust the speaker will (magically) benefit from that. I don’t need to intellectually “do” anything, and in fact if I try to, it’ll get in the way.

I think that there is a time and a place for intellect and “making things happen.” However there is a largely unexplored world, particularly for listeners, in just being present without expectation. It’s a leap-give it a try and see what happens.

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