When listening takes on new meaning

“We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than the one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character.” — Dallas Willard

We all know we should be better listeners.

But how many of us go out of our way to cultivate a practice where listening is more important than speech?

In the past, I saw listening as a way of understanding what was going on or getting someone to affirm my beliefs, prejudices and point of view, but I’m doing my level best to focus on an entirely new approach.

It’s called ‘hearing someone into speech’.

This isn’t new. As far as I can tell it was coined by Nelle Morton in her book The Journey is Home about the experience of ‘hearing to speech’ stories which might not otherwise get told at all:

“It was in a small group of women who had come together to tell our own stories that I first received a totally new understanding of hearing and speaking. I remember well how one woman started, hesitating and awkward, trying to put the pieces of her life together. Finally she said: “I hurt… I hurt all over.” … She talked on and on. Her story took on a fantastic coherence. When she reached a point of most excruciating pain no one moved. No one interrupted. Finally she finished. After a silence, she looked from one woman to another. “You heard me. You heard me all the way. … I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.” … [This was] a complete reversal of the going logic in which someone speaks precisely so that more accurate hearing may take place. [Instead, it was] a depth hearing that takes place before the speaking – a hearing that is far more than acute listening.” (pp.127-128)

For me, though, it’s not about replacing one methodology with another but trying to understand the subtext of why now I feel the need to stop, back up and look again at my approach to something so fundamental.

I think what’s going on is the need to move out of the realm of ‘fixer’ — a legacy of being a problem-solving lawyer for 15 years — and crossing the bar to one of ‘healer’.

I hope you won’t think me pompous in saying this, but so much of the broken-heartedness I see in people trying to come to terms with living a divided life isn’t going to be resolved with me applying the same rationale as before: “I know exactly what you need to do!” For a start, it’s likely to close down the other person who will openly say one thing — usually in a stilted way — but secretly be thinking something else (“What the bloody hell does he know?”). Instead, without pretending that I have all the answers by listening into speech, I’m now willing to accept that I don’t have to judge, to cheerlead or direct, but merely to ask a genuine, non-leading open question and get the bloody hell out the way.

I’ll tell you one thing, it takes an incredible amount of discipline not to revert to type. Indeed, I would say that I’m nowhere near the point where I feel confident or comfortable going into a meeting or talking with someone where my instinctive fixer mentality doesn’t override the need to shut up and let the other person breathe, let alone hear them into speech. But, as with a number of things I’m still trying to master, I at least feel the warning signs sufficient to reflect after I’ve fouled up again.

To be clear, this isn’t some mythos where you can comfortably predict the outcome; and you’ve got to be prepared to suspend your beliefs or feelings for it’s in the moment that the person says something that you don’t like and want to interrupt that in the very next breath will give rise to something that might help them unlock a space in their heart that was previously shut off to them. In other words, it’s likely to be a raw and emotional experience and you need to be prepared for the ebb and flow without expecting an outcome.

At this point, I could finger wag and suggest you give it a try but I’m going to resist the temptation simply because you may be much more comfortable as the problem solver, and that’s fine. All I know is that I grow as much as the other person has the potential to do so, and that’s a good enough reason for me to continue.