Thoughts On: Listening

I don’t want to think that I’ve acquired enough wisdom to be able to give instruction, this is just an observation I want to test and remember. I am putting my thoughts in order to clarify my own thinking.

My proposition is this:

Listening means not saying what you want.

That’s an oversimplification, but simple things are easier to remember. I’m not saying I should be a pushover and not stand up for what I believe in, but I am saying that listening to someone else means going with the conversation somewhere you were not originally planning. You’re not listening to someone if you are just trying to recite your agenda. To listen means to reply with something other than what you’ve thought before. Not to change your mind, but to follow them down their path, and hopefully explore new ground together. And ideally, it’s reciprocal. I can maintain my own ideas while hearing contrary ones.

If I approach a topic in conversation with anyone, I probably have preconceptions and biases, intentional or not. Listening to someone means trying to find out what theirs are. And maybe I’ve heard similar thoughts from someone else, maybe I think I know what they’re going to say, but listening means coming alongside someone else and going with them on their ideas and finding out where they’ve come from. Usually, it’s personal. In polarizing topics, both sides” of the argument are typically known. But the personal reasons why someone believes a certain way are unique to everyone’s story. Some stories may be similar in some cases, but that story about how that decision was made is something you cannot know without listening.

If you shut someone down without hearing their story, you are not listening to them. I hope to have enough discernment to be able to identify when listening is not reciprocal and determine the best response. Whether that be levity if the context merits it, or compassion. Listen to where someone is coming from. Is it fear? Pain? I believe hate can only be taught, and you can’t figure out who the teacher was without listening to them; to their story, their path.

If I’m listening to someone who does not want to reciprocally listen, then I must decide if it’s still beneficial. Are they needing to just get this off their chest? Does this need a response from me? Is there simply not enough time at the moment to listen to each other? Should I express that?

If I’m hearing someone speak, but just waiting (rather than listening) to react, or interject with my own experiences and premeditated thoughts, I’d be redirecting the conversation to go somewhere familiar to me. But if instead, I listened to someone and tried to get to the core of where they are coming from, all the while keeping my preferences in my head—but not at my tongue—and tried to follow their conversation, we could end up somewhere neither of us were anticipating. I imagine conversations like that old proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together” 1.

I think we can see how destructive conversations have become when we try to converse quickly and without listening to others, without trying to bring at least one other person along on the conversation. We can’t get a conversation to somewhere we weren’t expecting on our own. We have to listen to each other, forego our desires of what we want to talk about, and try to get somewhere we haven’t been yet. Apparently, somewhere new, somewhere we haven’t been yet, might be more peaceful.

Sure, there are times when we need to express our thoughts. Me publishing this now is one example. I think public speaking and writing is a crucial skill and activity for a healthy society. But that’s the difference between public presentation and conversation: preparation. I feel like today, all conversation is treated like public presentation (maybe because online, it is in a sense). We’ve rewired our brains to treat every interaction like a presentation of our predetermined thoughts and ideas. We are not curious. There is a time to present your thoughts and a time to listen to others and a time to explore both together.

Listen until you hear something you’ve never thought before, whether that comes from your mouth or not.

  1. I found this great little deep dive into the supposed origins of that proverb when I searched to make sure I had remembered it correctly.↩︎

April 14, 2021