Much has been written about the art of listening. We think we do it. We think conversations are a back and forth exchange. Sometimes they are. There are subtle distinctions, though, between listening and waiting for your turn. Or maybe they are not so subtle.
In academic reading, we read in order to understand the author’s meaning. What does this author want to say and about what is he or she talking? How does this perspective or information fit in with what other people are saying on this topic? What are academic people saying? What is the lay person or the media saying? After we have fully understood the author’s ideas, we think about it and add our own perspective, perhaps agreeing with what we have read, perhaps amending it, adding to it, or disagreeing with it. Academic argument is not conflict, even when there is disagreement. It is a process of moving toward greater understand. The process is the open exchange of ideas and the debate between people interested in better understanding. There may be disagreement, even heated disagreement, but the goal is improved knowledge and understanding.
In our personal lives, the structure of conversation is less explicit. We want to be right. Or the other person’s views hurt our feelings or make us angry. We feel a loss when someone important to us has a different view. The agenda for conversation has more to do with forming the relationship– defining it, limiting it, preserving it–than with understanding the other person. The meta-message overpowers the message in ways that can interfere with a genuine exchange of viewpoints. When we are overcome by emotion or misunderstanding, we are unable to set our own views aside long enough to understand what the other person is actually saying.
Sometimes deliberate listening requires a conscious commitment to the intention to understand the other person’s reality from his or her point of view. Before we have a response or opinion about it. We might need to ask questions to clarify. We might need to restate what we heard in order to get it accurately understood. There might be more uninterrupted time for the other person to try to explain his or her thoughts. We might understand the other person’s point of view at different layers of meaning. The motive to truly understand another person is a compliment to that person. It means we believe his or her thoughts are of value and we want to know what they are.
And of course, the converse is also true: if we are impatient, focusing on our own perspectives even while listening, we are devaluing the unique views of the other person. If we use the other person’s experience to create emotional distress or even happiness for ourselves, this has nothing to do with the other person. It is our own agenda when we respond in certain ways to another person. The way a person expresses his or her ideas tells us something about that person for sure. It gives us a sense of how he or she views us; what his or her values are; how complex his or her views are. At the same time, how we are able to listen gives the other person an experience of who we are. And, if we get good at it, we are enriched by learning, reflecting, and appreciating how it feels to be someone else moving through the world.