The Art of Listening

Crush #4

Why is the act of speaking commonly thought more important than listening? As something of a natural listener myself, this has always puzzled me enormously. What is it to listen? Students, for example, are listeners, or they’re supposed to be. “Listen and learn” is a logical pairing in a way that “speak and learn” isn’t. The second phrase sounds strange, yet it’s implicit to the practice of many educators to value speaking over listening. A common view, not only in education but especially there, has it that it’s the speaker who participates while the listener more or less passively absorbs it. I want to make a case for listening. That this case needs to be made is odd given that conversation contains not one basic act but two, and it’s their mutual presence that constitutes authentic participation.

The under-appreciation of listening, I believe, is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of this act. Listening, it must be said, is an act, and a highly complex one. It’s an act of receptivity to be sure, and receptivity has long been associated, falsely, with passivity. To receive isn’t to surrender the will and be acted upon but is a mode of engagement. Its salient feature is openness, but this isn’t the openness of an empty container waiting to be filled but is an active hospitality. Listening is no mere withdrawal into the self or a frightened retreat but a venturing beyond one’s private convictions and into the convictions of an interlocutor and toward a meeting of minds. Here one’s attention is fully absorbed by the other, or by what the other has to say to us, in a process that demands a kind of self-forgetfulness. To listen is to acknowledge that I’m being addressed, that someone is not only speaking but speaking to me. They are claiming something not only in the sense of stating a proposition that may be true or false but making a claim upon our attention and capacities. It falls to us to listen and respond, and where the former must be understood with constant reference to the latter.

What’s essential in the act of listening is the response and the preparation that’s bound up with it, that we are poised one way or another and in a way that is the opposite of passive. Listening is no less work, and no less creative, than speaking. We may indeed speak of the art of listening. One who practices it not only opens oneself to what another has to say but ventures oneself. It’s well known that to speak and write is to risk oneself, to venture an idea, and to expose one’s point of view to the scrutiny of others. This partially explains the fear so many have of public speaking; we fear being exposed, criticized, and badly thought of. We don’t think badly of the listener. At worst we might believe the listener has nothing to say or lacks the courage to venture something of themselves. But we don’t fear listening in the way that we fear speaking, or so it seems. But if we don’t exactly fear listening, why are there so few good listeners? Listening requires that we stop speaking, a seemingly elementary act that anyone at all can do. But not everyone can. Consider the bad listener. Such individuals are said to be in love with the sound of their own voice, yet it’s not love that’s in play here but a kind of dread. The object of such dread isn’t silence but that someone else might speak, that we might be addressed and obliged precisely to risk our point of view. We might well ask whether it’s the speaker or the listener who ventures more of themselves. The work of listening, in any event, is to risk being called into question and to prepare a response to a claim that we may not have anticipated.

This form of work requires something more of us. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of the anticipation of truth as a vital precondition of thinking in general. We must anticipate, at least in a preliminary way, that a speaker or a text is right. To see this, imagine what it’s like to listen without this anticipation. Somehow we know the speaker is mistaken even before they begin to speak. Why, then, are we listening, and what kind of listening is this? If we anticipate that the speaker’s claim lacks truth or value, why are we listening at all? This is precisely what characterizes the bad listener: not that they are incapable of doing this but that they don’t see the need. In their mind, they need only to be reassured that they were correct all along and may therefore settle back in their knowledge. In all listening there is invention and a judgment of confidence that the claim one is listening to is worth the effort. This is easily seen in an aesthetic context. In listening to music, again we’re anticipating that there’s something in this, not just pleasure but something far more interesting: some meaning to be glimpsed, something to be shown and experienced, and in a way that potentially transforms us. When the anticipation of meaning or truth is suspended, listening is at an end.

To listen is not yet to speak, but it’s to be on the way to speaking. This is the basis for describing this as an act of invention. Someone has addressed me, and since conversation is a two-way street it falls to me to fashion a response. As the musical example illustrates, listening is a responsive as well as a complex and learned activity. We learn how to listen, what to listen for, and the art of discerning increasingly subtle qualities. Attention is selective, and knowing how to direct it and to discern must be learned. Listening is also purposive, and if we’re doing it in a genuine sense, our purpose is the speaker’s purpose. Listening in a critical way still requires a shared purpose and an anticipation of truth. It’s not just an exercise in fault-finding. The point is to listen and learn, where to learn means to be formed and transformed. The student not only understands what has been said but is able to respond in an intelligent way, which always means with a thought of their own. They are able to participate in the back-and-forth of dialogue and at times to move the conversation in a different direction.

To listen is to take seriously and to take in creatively what another has to say, and this is inseparable from the act of questioning. Conversation involves a questioning that runs in two directions; as the speaker calls into question the standpoint of the listener, the latter must actively interrogate, interpret, and judge what’s being said. Where there is thinking there is interrogation, a search for connections and understanding, and a judgment of something’s importance. No rule tells us how to do this, how to see what’s questionable and then to formulate the right question. This again is a creative act, and it belongs as much to listening as to speaking. It’s only when regarded as abstractions that the acts of listening, seeing what’s questionable, and formulating a question or a response of whatever kind are regarded as separate. Our lived experience is that listening already anticipates the latter.

The undervaluing of listening by educators might be due, in part anyway, to an epistemological problem: how is a teacher to know whether the student who doesn’t speak is listening in earnest or tuning out? But I suspect that a deeper explanation lies in a larger cultural phenomenon. Ours, I think it’s fair to say, is not a culture of listeners. What it values is the kind of venturing that’s directly conducive to utility—“putting yourself out there,” as it’s said, in such a way that’s calculated to bring gain. The point is to be well thought of, or sheer visibility.

The educated mind, as I think of it, is not only well informed but capable of participating in a genuine sense in the conversation that is their culture, and the structure of participation itself is fundamentally dialectical or dialogical. One speaks—one is capable of speaking, of having something to say—only on the basis of having listened for some considerable period of time, and where listening is no mere preliminary to what matters but is of the essence of education.

It’s the constant tendency of educators to undervalue the intangibles of their practice, and this is especially true of the act of listening. It’s not a mere means to an end, where the end is to be informed. The philosopher Martin Heidegger emphasized that to think is always to be making a beginning, to be “on the way,” and the same is true of the listening act. The listener is on the way to speaking, discerning what matters, and preparing to be persuaded or to resist depending not on any prior convictions but on what another has to say. In the listening act no less than in speaking, we risk ourselves, catch hold of what is said, and undertake to take it further.