I See What You're Saying
I learned that honest, involved listening is both a gift to others and ourselves. It’s a way to connect with others and move past the superficial to glimpse another’s humanity.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
When I was in elementary school, somewhere around grade 4 or 5, my teacher ran a unit on active listening. After going over the concept, we were split into pairs—one storyteller, and one listener. The listeners were evaluated on their technique. We were instructed to give cues such as nods and mm-hmms to indicate understanding. We were expected to avoid interrupting, and at the same time ask thoughtful questions. Our questions would ideally both portray our understanding thus far, and prompt further development of the story. We were to paraphrase what we heard, to clarify with the speaker that we had understood their meaning. On top of all that, we were to make eye contact and display open body language. Lastly, we were expected to be able to relay the story back, and both the teacher and storyteller could evaluate whether we were successful or not—in other words, had we successfully listened. It was intense, difficult, and unlike any school assignment I had had before.
Before then, I can’t remember ever having thought of listening as an action. In school, we students listened to the teacher, expecting that our academic success relied on being able to repeat the lesson back at a later time. In this way, listening was a solitary activity. The onus to demonstrate understanding was put on tests and assignments, essentially removing the interactive part of listening from the equation. While the teacher may well conclude that I was listening after grading my exam, the exercise was devoid of the nuance required while listening during a one-on-one conversation. This is not a criticism of the teacher, but instead a feature of the system. As a kid, my class had 30 students and one teacher. A teacher that endeavoured to teach each child one-on-one wouldn’t have much time to dedicate to each individual—for 30 students over a 6-hour period, each would get 12 minutes.
This is not a discussion about pedagogy. I’m merely pointing out that at school, listening was frequently a solitary, passive exercise, rather than an active half of conversation. I performed countless speeches in front of the class, and recall only one lesson on listening. Yet, it obviously had a lasting impact—I think about it often.
Perhaps that experience is partially what drew me to Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Strictly speaking, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) isn’t active listening, though it draws some parallels. Namely, it asks the listener to actively participate in conversations and read between the lines, to seek a deeper understanding of a speaker with the ultimate goal of connection. This, too, can be both intense and difficult.
And now, back to the classroom.
When the roles of storyteller and listener were reversed, I was assigned another set of tasks. I was expected to tell the story, answer questions, make eye contact, and use open body language. On top of that, I was expected to observe my listener for signs of either understanding or confusion, and proceed accordingly. I, too, had some responsibility to the listener.
I was uncomfortable being in the spotlight. As a middle child in a talkative family, it was not always easy to get a word in during conversations, and pausing for breath often marked the end of a person’s turn to speak. Storytelling was more prevalent than conversations per se, and the audience need not participate for the plot to unfold. On the flip side, I had other family members that believed children ought to speak only when spoken to—not exactly an invitation to converse. Yet there I was, with a rapt audience of one, not competing for their attention, breathing easy knowing I could express my point without interruption, knowing full well they were both listening and trying to comprehend. While it was uncomfortable at first, I left feeling strangely satisfied. Rosenberg would say that my need for understanding had been fulfilled.
That short unit had a transformative effect on me, and I continued practicing what my teacher had taught me long afterward. I learned that honest, involved listening is both a gift to others and ourselves. It’s a way to connect with others and move past the superficial to glimpse another’s humanity.
I’m not claiming that I’m always a great listener. I am not. Nor am I claiming listening is better than speaking. In fact, both are required to converse and connect. It does seem that society undervalues one and overvalues the other. For example, employers may require applicants to be strong public speakers, yet rarely is effective listening on the job description. For a moment, imagine that everyone in a leadership position was adept at listening to the point of deep comprehension. How might workplaces, school, and politics be different? Imagine a world where problems were clearly defined before solutions were proposed. How might things change if listening were regarded as action rather than inaction?
It may seem a little hypocritical, this longwinded story. I possess the same love of storytelling as others in my family, and have many of the same conversational habits. I’m grateful that my upbringing armed me with the ability to interrupt, a skill sometimes crucial for a woman in a male-dominated field that wants her voice heard. Sometimes when I find myself waiting for my turn to talk, I remind myself that in the meantime it’s my turn to listen. While I have sometimes been complimented on my own public speaking—another skill I acquired at school—I much prefer smaller groups, ones in which I can detect the subtle signs of comprehension in my audience. The nuance appeals to me.
That brings us here.
My intense classroom experience has been front of mind lately as COVID-19 restrictions start to lift. I am out of practice when it comes to human interaction. Not that I haven’t had any. Video calls have been abundant these past months, a helpful stand-in until in-person meet-ups return.
There’s something a little off-putting about a video call. There is an awkwardness to the flow of conversation as it is interrupted by time lags and automatic microphone adjustments. There is the silent void created by muted microphones, a polite gesture to avoid interruptions that also eliminates normal conversational feedback and transforms one person from peer to performer. There is the slightly raised voice of a speaker who thinks their words aren’t being heard. Then, there is a looming sense of tension, that is hard to put a finger on.
But like I said, restrictions are starting to lift. And everyday tasks are starting to revert back to the way they used to be. You can feel it in the air.
Just the other day I was standing in line at the grocery store. I was thinking about what the past year had been like for the cashiers, and how safety measures can both protect people and disconnect people. I was feeling distracted by my thoughts, my children, and wondering whether it was ok to lay my reusable bag down on the bagging counter. Like everyone else there, half my face was covered with a mask. I felt nostalgic for the ability to interpret someone’s feelings based on the set of their mouth. Both I and my thoughts were disconnected. Then I realized that I was just one shopper of hundreds passing though the store that day, distracted and detached. The cashier turned to hand me my receipt and wish me a good day. Rather than exchange reflexive parting niceties, we caught each other’s gaze and spoke to each other. Our eyes were locked for what felt like an eternity. I was reminded of that time back in the classroom with my audience of one. It was humanizing.
Of course, the moment didn’t last very long at all. I think it felt unfathomably long because, like I said, I’m out of practice. For much of the past year, the majority of my conversations have been through phone calls, text messages, and video calls. That tension I talked about earlier? There is no eye contact during video calls. People look at each other in unnatural ways, unable to follow another’s gaze and not bound by social customs to check their own. A video call is a tool for connection, but falls flat in translating the nuance of communication.
As socialising slowly starts to get back to normal I’ll try to appreciate conversations for the subtle physical features that silently demonstrate interest—just like my teacher taught me. If we’re lucky, perhaps the feeling of isolation so many of us have experience lately will be replaced with a sense community. Alongside that romantic notion, I’ll remind myself that some people are just waiting for their turn to speak.
For those times when I feel the need to express myself fully without interruption, I’ll probably turn to writing—a medium that allows me to fulfil my need for understanding even if it’s never read by another. It’s a wonderful tool for self-empathy, but that’s a subject for another day.
Can you think back to a time where you sensed being fully heard and understood? Does that memory hold special meaning for you? How do you connect with others in conversation? Do you think listening is undervalued?
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