The Art of Listening

We’ve all had those conversations. You know the sort. The ones where you are simply talked-at — incessantly. The talker-at only pausing for necessary bodily functions (well, we hope). And if you do manage to get that edgeways word in it is either received with eyes-glazed impatience or that faux-attention that is really only seeking a gap to recommence the talking-at.

Yet, we are all guilty of them, these conversations that amount to no conversation at all. While we are usually (excruciatingly) aware when we are being talked-at, we often fail to realise when we are doing the talking-at. Especially when it all seems so civilised, politely taking turns to talk, keeping friendly eye contact, and paying sincere attention. Your body (including your mouth) is doing all the right things, but in your head all you hear is BLAH BLAH BLAH, except perhaps the bits you want/like/agree, or the random bits that make you go WHAT?!

As I discussed last time it is really hard to change our minds. Part of the difficulty is that we find it hard to listen not only to what we don’t want to hear but also to anything other than what we already think. This inclination is captured in contemporary psychology’s understanding of confirmation bias; that is, we tend to seek out, interpret, and accept evidence that confirms our existing beliefs (similarly overlooking what disconfirms). And we are all prone to it. Tricky then for proper philosophical mind changing to get off the ground as we are disinclined to listen to alternatives as actual alternatives.

Nevertheless, simply being aware of our natural bias we can start to overcome it. Listening, then, must become a deliberate activity not just a passive occurrence. So, being a philosopher, how should we go about actively listening and genuinely hearing?

I have two suggestions.

Firstly — Curiosity.

Like that of a child. That natural inquisitiveness and fascination with the novel and the new that brings joy and wonder. Of course when you are a child pretty much everything is new and fascinating because it is new; but, with age novelty grows far less novel. This is not an inevitable decline, just something that we have to work at over time.

We need to work at being open. Literally unfolding our body, uncrossing arms and legs, widening eyes, and expanding our minds to wonder. To wonder at, to be open to, the possibilities, the alternatives, the new, and optimistically so.

Let me give you a personal example of how this can be achieved.

Although a confident and accomplished public speaker, I started to uncharacteristically, debilitatingly, panic at the idea of presenting my work. Rightly or wrongly, philosophy conferences have a reputation (or mythology) for turning into academic bloodbaths, where you figuratively defend yourself to the death, or commit intellectual suicide. This means, again rightly or wrongly, that everyone is packing their offensive defence — arms folded, death stares, devastating questions a-ready. This approach made me sick, actually physically sick (and sadly this is common amongst philosophers, especially early in our careers). It took me a while but I devised an approach that makes conferences, all philosophy forums in fact, a worthwhile experience for me without having to becoming a bayer for blood myself.

Instead of putting on my own defensive stance, my fresh approach, my mantra, has become to wonder ‘what new, interesting thing can I learn?’ When it comes to presenting my material, instead of worrying about potential suicide, wonder ‘this is an interesting idea, that I want to share, what will interested others think about it?’ And then, when the questions come, instead of preparing to fend off the deathblows, wonder ‘how can these questions make my ideas clearer, better?’ By being consciously, deliberately, curious about the questions, potential alternatives to your ideas, and assuming that your questioner is similarly interested in your answers, philosophy can become a genuine conversation.

Of course, such questioners are usually, perhaps unwittingly, aiming to catch you out, to let some blood. However, since they expect your defensiveness, you may be pleasantly surprised at how disarmed a hostile questioner, also those talkers-at, can become when treated with curiosity, openness, and sincerity. In conversation, you are never responsible for your interlocutor, you are only responsible for how you act, re-act, and interact. In this way the curious can listen, hear, and have a greater chance of being heard.

Secondly — Imitation.

Now, I do not mean mere mimicry or mocking impersonation, but the sincere inhabitation of another’s ideas as if they are our own. Imaginatively taking on ideas coincides with playful curiosity. Remember, as a child, wondering what it would like to be a doctor, pirate, unicorn, and then playing it out — imitating. Starting with Aristotle throughout the history of philosophy imitation has been considered much more than child’s play. At times, it has been thought the best, perhaps only, way we can come to know the true nature of the world, especially the virtuous self.

So, I suggest, by imitating — imaginatively acting out — ideas that are not our own as our own we can come to truly know and understand them, we can genuinely hear them. Also, you can alleviate the pain of being talked-at by imitating the ideas being talked about; that is, by focussing on what is being said you are less afflicted by how it is said (and in no way need pander to the talker-at).

You probably see an obvious danger with this appeal to imitation. Not all ideas are good for us. Some are bad, very bad, indeed. The worry being by indiscriminately submitting ourselves to such an all-encompassing enacting of ideas, including the bad ones, we risk being damaged by them, possibly deeply and irreparably. I take this to be a real concern that I shall explore and hopefully allay next time.

In the meantime, if you find yourself being talked-at, or suspect that you are doing the talking-at, dabble with your curious, playful, inner child, and enjoy the wonder of listening and actually hearing.

Next time: Beware of Philosophers bearing Trojan Horses.


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