The Ancient Art of Listening

       Paul Tillich once said "the first duty of love is to listen."  I firmly believe that part of the reason that we listen to others so little these days is because we listen so little to ourselves.  Listening implies there is a process where we are actually trying to understand the message being conveyed.  Hearing, is just, well, hearing.  Listening implies intention and effort, it requires motivation.  Hearing is passive, there is a noise or sound and it is moving into your ears.  Listening requires purposeful executive brain function, hearing uses automatic mechanisms. 

       However, I really do understand why we are in such a listening deprivation crisis.  With technology, combined with the emphasis placed on immediate gratification, on top of the awards being given every day by society for being the best multi-tasker in the room; we don't have a chance to process.  Historically information transfer was more like Model T's and now we have Indy 500 nuggets of information flying at us at all times from all directions.  The last time I was at the airport I watched a business man sitting at the gate watching TV while talking on the phone and typing on his laptop.  I wondered to myself, who was he actually listening to?  I used to consider it a compliment when people commented on my multi-tasking ability.  However, the research says it is a much less effective and less efficient system with less than impressive productivity results.  In the book, High Octane Women, Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter suggests that in research done by Shamsi Igbal and Eric Horvitz  "that each time we leave a task to respond to an email, it takes, on average, about 16 minutes to get back to the point of productivity we were at before we were distracted." I no longer take multi-tasking reflections from others as compliments but rather a challenge to purposefully attend.  When someone says, "geez, you really can do a lot, or handle a lot, or manage a lot of activities at the same time" I say, "thank you for reminding me to slow down."

       The first step in the process of upgrading from hearing to listening is attending.  I think the necessary requirement for successful attention is eliminating distraction.  At this point you are wondering why I am laboring on about this given that information overload appears to be the inevitable way of the world and it's not that bad really, right, I mean you can handle it, right?  Yes, of course you can handle it.  But as Tillich said, in order to love, and I do mean both ourselves and others, we must listen.  I will interpret he meant that we have no idea what we are connecting to, and therefore cannot love, unless we understand fully.  We are required to listen in order to understand and we must understand in order to love.

        As I mentioned before, I believe the first step in understanding others is understanding ourselves.  Without knowing who we are, there is no point in pretending we are available to someone else.  I have in the past had a hard time listening to myself.  Up until recently, I have been only hearing myself for years.  "My stomach hurts."  "I am tired."  "I don't want to go to work."  "I am happy."  Yes, but where have the listening questions been i.e. "why does my stomach hurt," and "what needs to happen for it to feel better"?  "What is the cause of my fatigue," and "how can I care for myself so I am not so exhausted"?  "What do I really need right now"?

         I have found these are the questions that arise when I attend, when I clear the palate, when I stop multitasking.  Night time works for me, but my clients describe lots of different listening practices that work for them. Another time, or another situation might work better for you, you'll have to test out your availability and attention.  My listening practice is after I get in bed I spend a moment or two being grateful for someone or something and then I  take about 4-5 minutes to be still, clear my mind and allow myself to listen.  Initially when I first started, it was quite surprising what I understood about myself in those few brief moments at the end of each day.  Surprisingly enough with attention, the theme I listen to most is care and love for myself, for the hard work I have accomplished that day or the effort I have put in, sometimes I even understand what I really want.  

        The practice has begun to make me a better listener for others. My hope is that we will become an archaeological nation where we unearth the buried art of listening to ourselves and others.  I hope you will take Tillich's advice and participate in the first duty of love, listening. If you want, let me know how it goes! I'll be listening.