Why We Don’t Listen

An Article by David Cornfield

My old pal Harry and I are walking in the park, improvising like two jazz musicians - except we're playing with words not melodies. He throws out a line. I have a comeback. He does a riff on my response. Pretty soon we're laughing so hard we're crying. Eventually we collapse, exhausted, on a park bench.

"That was amazing, Harry," I say, "Why don't we do it more often?".

I'm just being social, not really expecting a response, but Harry takes my question seriously. He leans closer, lowering his voice, like he's confiding in me.

"I'll tell you why not. Improvising the way we just did calls on us to be wide open to each other - not just listening, but letting ourselves be affected by what we hear and firing back the first response that comes to mind, without editing or censoring. That kind of impulsive spontaneity makes for an exhilarating ride, but calls for more vulnerability than I, or anybody else for that matter, is usually up for.

"When I am open to being affected by your words, I can get hurt - and that goes double when you aren't censoring. Ridicule, rejection, insults, intimidation, a dismissive tone, an exasperated look on your face - they all hurt. Or I might have to face facts I'd rather not know about. Or you might shake up one of my cherished beliefs, threatening my way of making sense of the world. Or you might get emotional on me, and I won't know how to handle it. Or it might be me who gets emotional, and I don't want to be that vulnerable with you. Or you might praise me, and I'm not comfortable with praise. Or we might get more connected, and I am afraid of intimacy. I don't want to get hurt, I don't want to face difficult facts, I don't want to lose my grip on reality, I don't want to deal with emotions, or praise or intimacy, so I protect myself by not listening, or by listening without allowing what is being said to have an impact on me."

Sitting there on the park bench, I have a vivid flashback: seven years old, in tears because the kids at school made fun of me, Mom intoning that familiar refrain about sticks and stones breaking my bones, but words never hurting me. It dawns on me that mother was wrong and Harry is right. Listening can be dangerous for your health.

"And everybody knows this - that listening is potentially dangerous?"

"Put it this way. Whether or not we know it consciously, we all behave as though listening can be hazardous, and we all work out ways of protecting ourselves from hearing what we don't want to hear. Over time these defensive stances become habitual. After all, it is hard to predict when someone is going to unleash a zinger, so we keep our guard up all the time. Eventually we forget what it is like to listen openly."

"It sounds as if we have more than one way of protecting ourselves from what we don't want to hear."

"You got it. There are many styles of not listening. The most obvious is retreating into your own world and literally ignoring what is going on around you. Taken to a dysfunctional extreme, this amounts to autism or schizophrenia, but lots of people are oblivious to much of what is happening around them and are still able to function in the world. These people don't participate very much in conversations, and when they do, they tend to interrupt because they don't notice someone else is talking. They are not listening.

"Then there are your Monopolizers and your Interviewers. These people protect themselves by controlling conversations. Monopolizers control by taking up all the airtime. Interviewers control by asking a lot of questions, confining the discussion to subjects that feel relatively safe. Both are protecting themselves from hearing what they don't want to hear. Both are out of relationship.

"That brings me to the Offensive Forwards who actually listen to what you are saying, but only because they want to prove you wrong. They always find something to object to, even if it's just a quibble about the use of words. Offensive Forwards are impenetrable by design. They listen intently, but you can't get through to them. They refuse to be affected."

I shift uneasily on the park bench. Each time Harry describes a defensive listening stance, I'm sure he's talking about me. Forgive me, Harry, for I have sinned. I have been oblivious, I have monopolized, I have interviewed and I have been offensively impenetrable. I picture myself in a confessional. Harry is behind the screen, listening and rolling his eyes. I wonder what the penance will be. Suddenly my reverie disappears and I am aware of Harry trying to get my attention. Uh oh. Did it again.

"Sorry Harry. But it's depressing to think that what usually passes for conversation is so empty and controlled. It's especially hard in the light of the amazing interaction we just had."

"This cuts deeper than the art of good conversation, my friend. Think about it. Everyone hungers for attention. It is one of our most precious commodities. Why? Because attention helps us know we exist. Attention is the way we know we are loved. Attention is so essential to our feelings of well being that if we can't get positive attention, we provoke negative attention. There can be no attention without looking and listening,. So what we have is a vast crowd desperately seeking someone who will listen, but no one open to responding to the need. Everybody is talking. Nobody is listening."

By this time I am beginning to wish I hadn't listened. While I don't dispute Harry's theories, I don't want to think about it if the situation is hopeless. I want to get to solutions.

"So what can we do about it, Harry. Would it help to take a course in active listening?"

"The problem I'm describing is not about a lack of listening techniques. The problem is defensive listening. We don't want to hear, and we actively deploy strategies to ensure we won't hear. There is no point in training people to listen when they don't want to hear. Before anything else, we need to deal with the resistance."

"You said earlier that your resistance to listening was rooted in an unwillingness to risk being hurt, to face difficult facts, to shake up your world view and to deal with emotions and intimacy. How do you deal with issues like that? For example, isn't unwillingness to be hurt a fairly reasonable stance?"

"Yes and no. Life is a risky business. Getting hurt goes with the territory. To be fully alive, you have to be willing to be hurt. When you say "never again", you are closing off a part of life, saying you won't take a risk in that area. Just because you got hurt once, or even several times, doesn't mean you shouldn't take the risk again."

"What about our reluctance to face emotions?"

"Facing emotions takes us back full circle to listening. A lot of people don't want to deal with emotions because they don't know how to respond to emotions."

"I know that one. What are you supposed to do for somebody who is falling apart?"

"Actually, it's real simple. One of the most powerful things you can do for someone in emotional distress is to give them your full attention. Don't try to convince them that nothing's wrong. Don't try to solve their problem. Don't ask a lot of questions. Just be with them in their pain. Show your receptivity by listening. Listening, all by itself, can be incredibly powerful. And when you are emotional, seek out someone who will listen to you. Let them know that what you need is their attentive listening, and remind them that expression of emotion is not the pain, but the healing of the pain."

Harry is clearly relishing this opportunity to talk while I listen. He's about to launch into denial, belief systems, praise and intimacy, but I've reached my listening limit. They'll all have to wait for another day. I don't say anything, but I get up from the bench. Harry, alert to both verbal and non-verbal clues, is quick to get the message. We head out of the park and, for a few delicious moments, I enjoy the sound of silence.

David Cornfield,

Why We Don`t Listen was first published in Eye For The Future Magazine, September, 1997

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