Archive for November 2010
The problem with listening is the other people who keep talking
You’ve opened your pie hole and made like a human: shaping experience into words that can be understood by the humans around you (though it’s still a bit fuzzy how anyone understands anything). You anticipate being stopped dead in your tracks with realization or wonder, right in the middle of a conversation.
But there’s a step to bridge the two: you’ve got to listen.
The traditional problem with listening is other people: they keep talking. When they are talking, you are not at the center and they keep uttering words that don’t refer to you. For instance: they rarely mention your name, which you keenly listen for. They keep talking about their own experience. Why, oh why, don’t they stop talking and ask me about me?
Let me introduce you to three friends who knew something about listening: Mortimer Adler, Alain de Botton and Jesus the Christ. I met Mortimer Adler when I read his book, “How to Read a Book.” Why read a book on how to read a book? Because of the author’s crazy fascination with understanding. He didn’t just read, he annotated, he outlined and he synthesized. He labored over passages in long conversations with the authors. Plus, he made it sound like fun (which it is!). Of course, there is not enough time to do that with every book, so Adler picked what he called the “Great Books.” His Great Books program has gone in and out of style over years, depending on your politics and your conclusions about who qualifies as worth reading.
Alain de Botton writes readable books that satisfy his curiosity and pull his readers into the vortex of questions he counts as friends. If you’ve ever wondered how electricity gets to your house or what is the process behind producing biscuits (that is, cookies) or why Proust is worth reading or why Nietzsche was not a happy-go-lucky guy, de Botton is the author you want.
Jesus the Christ knew something about listening, despite being both God and man. His human condition opened a limiting opportunity which in turn caused him to steal away for hours to converse with the God of the universe. I go into depth on this in Listentalk. But the point is that prayer, which is ultimately more about listening than talking, was a preoccupation of the man who was God.
Listening opens us to hearing—which sounds like “duh” except for when you examine your own listening practices and realize how often you are thinking of something else entirely when your spouse/child/boss/friend/neighbor appears to be talking. But to really hear, to be crazy to understand, to be curious and to be committed to connection opens us to the place where we can be stopped dead in our tracks.
Could Paying Attention be the New Black?
This has happened to you: Going along. Minding your business. Dashing off small replies to the usual small talk. Maybe you hint at the plus-sized existential questions colliding and storming through your subconscious; the doubts and uncertainties that threaten to spill through your cranium as a conscious thought you even might utter. Maybe you stay silent.
But the internal roiling doesn’t let up.
“What does it all mean,” you mutter under your breath on the elevator to the 23rd floor, remembering your wife’s comment about needing more attention and your boss using pretty much the same words and your doctor stating you need to focus on exercise otherwise diabetes is around the corner. That’s when the person next to you looks up from her phone and says,
“I don’t know, but the CDC says attention deficit disorder is on the rise.”
She smiles half a smile and goes back to her screen.
It hits you: Maybe there is a national attention deficit disorder and your life reflects it. Maybe our screens and multitasking so distract us that full-on attention is rare and becoming rarer. Since we carry the multi-tasking addiction with us into every conversation (like a drunk secretly playing out the context of the next drink), we simply have no bandwidth to attend the need, the threat, or the story (it is National Day of Listening, after all) playing out before us. And suddenly you long for an hour of blissful focus.
Black Friday may be a worthy day to consider that paying attention is the new black: the fashion statement that can only be given, not bought. And paying attention to what we say to each other—really listening—may be a gift that looks more like an investment in the future of a relationship.
If The Word Fits
If the first step in the Dummy’s Guide to Conversation is to open your pie-hole, proving you are both human and alive, then the second step is to listen. And the third step is to be stopped—or at least to be prepared to be stopped. So much of life seems set to automatic pilot. The same bowl of Raisin Bran every morning. The same drive to work. The same greeting to the guard, same conversations with the same coworkers. Same words sent. Same words received.
When we have the Aha moment on the elevator to the 23rd floor next to the woman immersed in her screen, we should take note. Write down the insight. Listen to it. But don’t stop there; consider making a habit of watching for the moments of supreme attention that stop you dead in your tracks with wonder. These are the very pivot points we shoot past without even taking in the scene. And that’s too bad, because we miss an opportunity to learn something about ourselves, our culture and our future.
Given that conversation is a primary tool for developing relationship, why do so many of us insist on using conversation only to persuade, protect and inform? Maybe talking can have a much bigger role in how we learn. And maybe our talk can be impetus for community formation—but how to begin?
This chapter shows how to feed individuals and groups with words that make sense and move others forward. The chapter shows how creativity is a welcome element to conversation and how it also helps people progress. And the chapter also shows how being fully present with each other helps us make mad chatter with the most delightful effect. Plus—we pull from the attitudes and practices of prayer as a model for free, unencumbered talk that will be effective with each other.
Deep Stuff Happens With This Connection
The Word became flesh and dwelt among them. And while Jesus had a priority of walking and talking with the people, he also had a habit of stealing away for focused bouts of conversation with God. Why pray, since Jesus was/is God? Is there something about the human condition that invites conversation with God? And is there something in prayer that connects us as we live in this human condition? There is talk in prayer—clearly. Experienced praying people say listening comes after the talk. Those who have gone far in prayer say tell of listening coming before talk and even replacing talk.
Prayer is a model of communication because of the intent and listening that motivates and surrounds the practice. Speech-act theory, when combined with this notion of communication with the God of the Universe, suggests insights into the nature of the performatives uttered by the praying person—performatives like no other communication. Prayer becomes an engine behind listening-rhetoric (“pursuing the truth behind our differences”) with the possibility for permanently altering individual lives, states and nations. All because of the connection with the Eternal. And as people pray together, profound, inexplicable connections grow. The result is that a praying people may also be a people profoundly open to the work God is accomplishing in the world—and a people profoundly connected to God and to each other.
Extreme listening adds intent to our ordinary encounters: purposeful and expectant waiting, watching and hearing for life-altering content. But is that too big a burden for everyday conversation? Perhaps conversation was made both for casual and in-depth need: flexing the moment interest turns hot for the true seeker? Extreme listening helps us sort our multitude of messages with keen observation and pointed hunger. We sort for what we need based on a clarifying sense of who we are and where we’re going.
Mortimer Adler and Alain de Botton exhibit habits of extreme listening, as is clear from the results of their work. Jesus the Christ spent considerable time in conversation with the God of the Universe, as much more than a disinterested conversation partner—He was intent on hearing because of so much that was required of Him.
Today pockets of extreme listening are motivated by strategic intent to serve communities, clients or shareholders, to grow customers, to capture potential buyers right at their point of decision. The chapter suggests listening-rhetoric as the engine behind our communication and also points out attitudes that support extreme listening.
Words Can Accomplish Stuff Among Us
We spend ourselves in word-formation without giving it a second thought. Producing and delivering words is our daily task. Words are the currency of our social capital, and we cash them in on paper, orally and electronically. And yet even as we spend our words to persuade or motivate someone to action or even command (perhaps depending on the context of hierarchy to provide the whip missing from our voice), we sometimes bank up even more social capital. Words are the giving that keeps giving—sometimes for good. Sometimes for ill.
Our words can be deposits in a community-wide bank as we annotate a context that helps a group self-identify, clarify tasks and purposes and simply move forward. Our words can pinpoint the human condition in a way that names a common problem or promise and so frees others to tackle it. Our words often fly out in camouflage simply because they blend in so well with all the other words flying through the air.
The opportunity to let our words fly is changing on a monumental scale because of technology and because of new attitudes of who, what and how to hear from each other. The opportunity has opened a wide new vista for forming community. But this is no time to hold back. No. It is time to jump in.
Do we talk to win, cower or connect?
How we approach any conversation hugely affects the outcome. Listening—as a priority—helps with connection, helps honor the other we engage with and opens us to learn. But first we jump five hurdles of misconceptions about listening to grasp what listening can and does accomplish.
The Bible is full of stories and teaching about how humans were made to be in conversation and how those conversations are identity-building and life-giving. In fact, the Bible provides at least six models of learning while we talk.
Conversation can be a scattered affair or it can be strategic.
The street preacher tosses out words that may pull in a passer-by. The street preacher might even aim and deliver those words to his mobile audience, hoping to bring some casual listener to a full stop. The farmer also tosses out seed and hopes for the best. It’s just that the farmer plants systematically, knowing she has given her seed the best environment for growth by choosing the well-drained plot of rich loam and cultivating it before planting.
Is dialogue more like words scattered by the street preacher or like words systematically implanted for growth by the strategic communicator? The moving parts of a conversation are put on display by an overview of philosophers Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, JL Austin and John Searle. Context, content, character and intention all play a role in how our conversations move forward. Finally, observations about what makes for a good conversation, including thoughts on control, disruptions, rhetoric and the place of whimsy/serendipity.
We can do research, entertain ourselves, communicate and think without the Internet, of course. It’s just that the addiction-like rewards of constantly seeing something new—along with the web’s ubiquity (given our groovy gadgets)—keeps pulling us back. Again and again. Carr’s book makes at least that point. One surprise is how plastic even the adult brain is (no one’s brain ever stops growing and adapting it seems). Combine that plasticity with the very old argument that the tools we use, while extending our reach and ability, also subtly limit us (make that “self-limit” because we naturally begin thinking of what we can do in tool terms), and you’ll understand the basis for Carr’s argument. What’s fascinating in the book is the conversations he has with himself and with a variety of authorities and thinkers about how and why we love the clicking life of the finger.
Carr’s much-reviewed book really has started a number of conversations among people who care about books and publishing, as well as among folks just curious about how we think and communicate. Carr builds a strong argument for taking a closer look at our own habits and even to consider taking a break from our 24/7 connections and the mesmerizing screens.
At least that was my reaction: to begin to take intervals of internet silence (small intervals—let’s not get carried away). As far as experiments go, that’s a good one, because if nothing else, the interval is perspective-producing (if uncomfortable). Carr described his own withdrawal from constant connection in a move he made from NYC to Colorado in terms that would put any junkie at ease.
I’m preparing a class on Social Media Marketing and The Shallows, plus Hamlet’s Blackberry A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers (which I’m reading and enjoying now) both provide a useful counter to the always-connected expectation. There is something refreshing about an hour or two of focus on a single task.