Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Art of Listening

As a mirror image to my previous discussion about rhetorical sensitivity, and as an extension to what I wrote about "expert listening," I would like to write a bit more generally about the art of listening.

I think we do not teach enough about skilled listening. We too often think that saying something is sufficient for it to be heard exactly as we meant it.

Maybe it is teachers especially who become aware of how much people miss. We teachers are used to saying many things and then receiving direct feedback about how much does not get through! The temptation is to accuse students of "not paying attention." While it is true that people sometimes zone out, there is a lot more going on as well in listening than just whether the attention is turned on or off. We teachers see, for example, those students who are in fact trying really hard -- their attention is focused, they may be taking notes, they raise their hands and ask questions.

Looking at students' notes can be an amazing experience. (It is usually very humbling, actually.) It can be like looking through a distorting lens at your own thoughts and words.

Eventually, I have let go of all of the anxiety, self-doubt, and even indignation that I initially experienced, and I feel that I understand all of this better.

People do perceive everything through lenses. The lenses are shaped by their own cognitive development so far. And everyone's cognitive development is different, since everyone has had different experiences and different education so far in life.

So, when people listen, they are not actually taking in your words exactly as you say them. They are translating your words first into their own native language: that is, their own set of concepts -- their own cognitive structure.

When you talk, some of what you say becomes incorporated into your listeners' ever-evolving cognitive structures, but other pieces of what you say bounce right off because their cognitive structure does not have a place for it.

Reciprocally, some of what others say to you may "fit in" to your cognitive structure, but other pieces may bounce off because of ways your own cognitive structure is too different from theirs.

Cognitive structures are flexible and ever-changing, however. Since we are constantly learning new things and having new experiences, our cognitive structures shift and change to adapt to the new information.

The main principle of skilled listening is understanding the translation process. When you listen with awareness that others may not be using words and concepts exactly as you do, you are more careful to pay close attention to how they connect the words and concepts they do use (rather then immediately reading your own definitions onto their words and concepts).

When something that the other person says "doesn't make sense," instead of accusing them of becoming irrational, you try to identify your confusion more precisely, and ask good follow up questions. For example, it is usually especially helpful to identify their key phrases and ask them to say more about what they take these phrases to mean. Very often, you then become very surprised. You realize that you had been reading a lot into their words that is different from what they were actually trying to express.

When we listen in this way (instead of stubbornly insisting that we are always right, and our definitions are the correct ones!), our own cognitive structures become more powerful and flexible. We become able to move from conversation with conversation more able to tune into where the other is coming from, and therefore communication improves.

The most highly skilled listeners adapt their language to others' as much as possible, and are careful to explain their own use of key words and concepts carefully when it is necessary to do so.

So, not only is it helpful and affirming to others to be listened to well, but it is enriching to the listener too. Listening well is a way of opening yourself to richer experiences -- moving beyond the limits of just your own experiences and your own current ways of thinking. It is a way of polishing your own "lens" so that you are able to "see" more and more.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What We Owe Each Other, Simplified

What I've been mulling about concerning what we owe each other suddenly fell into a simpler pattern for me today:

What we owe strangers and acquaintances: at least respect.
What we owe our friends: at least respect plus solicited attention.
What we owe the people we claim to love: at least respect, plus solicited attention, plus unsolicited attention (that is, checking in just to check in -- not waiting to be specifically asked for attention or help).

For details on what I mean by respect, and what I mean by love, I refer you to the earlier post on this topic.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Expert Listening

I just came back from a difficult committee meeting. Throughout the meeting, I felt a rising sense of despair, and realized it was just my growing sense of burnout. I reminded myself that I have a sabbatical coming up, and tried to tell myself not to get into a full-blown existential crisis over my despair unless it is still with me after my sabbatical!

What I found especially difficult was one person's participation. I watched with a kind of horror as he gave his analysis of the situation we were examining in a very calm and even dignified manner, but throughout his speech ended up insulting one person or group after another, until finally, by the end of his remarks, he had implicated just about everyone except himself.

He is someone who definitely needs some lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! It took all of my powers of sympathetic listening to listen expertly between the jagged edges of his own pain to the good points he did in fact make.

Yes, he made good points. Yes, the harsh edges to his words came from his own pain.

These point to the first two principles of Expert Listening: listen for good points; if something hurts, realize that the person is probably carrying some pain (that may have nothing to do with you) that is where the hurtful words come from.

It is hard to listen really well like this. When people shoot pointed words in our direction, it is hard not to feel like we are the target -- it is hard not to take it personally or become defensive.

It is especially hard not to take something personally when it is in fact meant personally! This is a Truly Advanced Principle of Expert Listening. (The secret to mastering this principle is understanding deeply and well that anyone who ever wants to hurt another person is wrong and is fundamentally mistaken about that person in some way. So, if someone wants to hurt you, they are fundamentally mistaken about you, in some important way. This is the part that can be really really hard to learn or believe. It is at least what has been the very hardest for me to learn -- and I'm not all the way there yet!)

Fortunately, I didn't have this particular challenge myself today, but I have had to deal with it in the past, and I expect that it will come up for me again, due to the nature of the kind of activism to which I feel called.

The reflex response to pointed words is to want to get the other person to stop launching pointed words, and maybe even to apologize. I indulged a bit in this reflex above when I suggested that the person needs lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! In that, I was wanting to change him, because I didn't like how he was insulting so many people I care about. My concern is also for him, because I don't think he realizes how much he undermines himself. If he did take lessons in rhetorical sensitivity, and expressed himself in ways that invite others to make connection with him and come on board with what he cares about, he would cause less pain and probably be more effective in garnering sympathy and support for his concerns. So, the reflex response is not totally off base.

But it is hard to change other people. People are resistant to change. People settle into habits of being and habits of communicating that are very hard to break.

So, if we hinge our own happiness on hope that others will change (become kinder, gentler, more inspiring, helpful, inviting, eloquent, etc.) we are doomed to miserable unhappiness.

It is urgent for all of us to learn how to accept each other where we are, and not keep trying to change each other.

"But we can't just let each other keep hurting each other, can we?!?"

There actually is another response: there are ways we can protect ourselves from getting hurt by others -- even when those others are trying to hurt us.

Expert listening is one such strategy. I really like that image of listening between the jagged edges of the other person's pain. In this, you are able to slip through the barbs and not get snagged and injured. You are able to see more deeply into who they really are and what they really care about, and have access to the best of who they are, even when they happen to be hiding their best selves quite well!

This is an important topic, and so I'll probably have more to say on this in future postings.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Philosophy and the God Question

Claire at Spiritual Journeys posted these thoughts on Philosophical Reason, God, and Faith.

There were many good comments in reply. This posting struck me because, being a philosophy professor myself, who happens also to take religious faith seriously, I am very sensitive to the issue of how the philosophical teaching of proofs for and against the existence of God can provoke faith crises among college students. I have seen ways of teaching these proofs that I regard as seriously problematic.

So, I would like to post my reply to Claire's posting, and then elaborate a little:

Yes, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).

When I teach about the proofs for and against the existence of God, I interpret them a bit unconventionally and point out that their real value is that they are analyses of different concepts that get associated with the concept of God.

I then tell the class that what is important is not so much whether they believe in God or not, but what they mean by "God" when they say that they either believe or don't believe.

I then have them write essays on whether they do believe in God or not, and urge them especially to examine closely what they mean by "God."For example: if you define God as a "white bearded guy in the sky," and say you don't believe in God, what you are really saying is that you don't believe in that concept of God. "Neither do very many believers in God," I add.

"Do you believe in love? What about in the Bible where it says, 'God is love'? What if we really took that seriously? Would that mean that really, we all believe in God?"

That usually blows my students' minds enough, and so at this point I back off, and read their essays with gentleness and respect.

I love philosophy, but still, I would be the first to agree with Claire that our beliefs must be tested carefully both by thinking and by experience.


I woke up this morning thinking further about this. The mystical traditions (and many, including myself, regard Quakerism as a mystical religion) claim that God is a kind of being that cannot really be conceptualized. Therefore, any ways that we do conceptualize God cannot adequately get at what God is really like. It is not that it is totally useless to conceptualize God, but we must be careful about how we interpret our conceptualizations. We should only take them as metaphorical and as approximations.

But this is not to say that we can know nothing about God. It is to say that the primary way of knowing about God is not through reason alone, but from religious experience.

It's when we reflect on religious experience, and especially if we try to describe those experiences to others, that we then conceptualize -- but again, our conceptualizations are never fully adequate.

Sometimes when people begin to realize this, they become disillusioned with reason and even may want to say things like, "reason is fundamentally flawed." I myself do not think that reason is fundamentally flawed, but I do think that it is limited. What it does, it does well, and with real power. But it doesn't do everything. Reason alone cannot account for all of our knowledge.

There are some mystics who regard it as fundamentally wrong to try to conceptualize God at all. They claim that God must be encountered in prayer and meditation: to then conceptualize God, reason about God, or engage in theology is all suspect. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, but not completely. Calvin Keene, in "God in Thought and Experience," (Quaker Religious Thought 52, Summer 1981, Vol. 19, No. 2) argues that experiences that remain unconceptualized become forgotten -- even very powerful experiences. "Religious experiences need to be interpreted in meaningful ways before they can be assimilated into one's person and become important for life"; otherwise, they can "lose significance" (p. 15).

Conceptualizing about God is what theology is all about. Then when we reason (construct various arguments about God) we are engaging in a process of coordinating our conceptualizations about God with the rest of the meaning system from which we live and think and act. Our meaning systems then need to be brought back to our actual experience again and again for further testing and refinement.

It is also important to note that we cannot share our experiences with each other or talk about our religious beliefs with each other without conceptualzing. Conceptualizing is an important way that our knowledge works, an important way that we stay in touch with a sense of the meaning of our lives, and conceptualizing underlies our ability to communicate with each other. As long as we humbly stay aware of the limits of conceptualizing, and keep testing our conceptualizations against further experience, there is no need to regard our tendency to conceptualize as problematic.

So, reason and experience do not have to be regarded as being at odds with each other. On the contrary, it is good for us to keep trying to reconcile them.