Written by Dani ClarkI’ve found myself noticing again. While the world has us all in near-constant motion and therefore, in many ways distracted, I still feel this sense of equilibrium when I take the time to pause, and especially when I take the time to listen. There are many things that can happen when I reach within and place my attention back out into who and what I hear. Sometimes, I encounter quiet first. And in this quiet exists something that allows thought to expand and contract–making room for nuances that when noticed, give insight into individual and shared life experiences. Some may call this “presence”; others call it “attunement.”
Personally, I’m fond of the term “attunement,” which is used in the Humanities to represent a kind of listening that attends to difference, respect, collaboration, and community engagement, where people listen for the context, social position, and power structures that can build into and around a person. When it comes to music, tuning is a recognition of rhythm and a movement towards harmony not merely through sounds, but also through vibrations that are felt as much as they are heard–just as our words can be felt as much as they are heard. The impact of sound and vibration on the body creates felt senses that move past the skin, often beyond consciousness—passing through and embedding into bodily memory: landing upon and evoking response. As a practice, attunement hinges on a person’s ability to acknowledge and adjust within an environment. In life we are constantly attuning ourselves—to our surroundings, social contexts, and particularly the potential for connection with both of those things. With regard to that last item, attunement implies response-ability towards other people, and an openness to change as we draw closer to one another and mutual understanding.
So, from the quiet and into the sound, listening can have us deeply situated in empathetic thought and curiosity for ourselves and others. Now, this part is important to linger on for a moment because it is easy to get caught in the space between empathy and sympathy, and those two things would do well not to be confused. To empathize in thought and conversation is the ability to recognize something within oneself that connects to the experiences of someone else, whereas sympathizing has a harder time sharing in the feeling and too eagerly tries to identify silver linings–aka statements that begin with “at least” and end with judgment. Brene Brown, research professor extraordinaire at the University of Houston, offers an even better description of the ways empathy and sympathy enter our lives in this short animated video. So, in order to be active, engaged conversationalists and meaning-makers, we must not only talk well, but we must also become active, thoughtful listeners.
Maybe you’re wondering what this listening actually looks like, and perhaps more specifically, within the context of person to person interaction. And I’ll say, when listening is supported by a closely held belief in the power of human connection, it can have profoundly moving results in conversation and relationship. It is important to note that connection does not always feel like the effortless acknowledgement of similarity, but rather the recognition that despite the challenges of difference, our personhood is worth sharing with one another. For me, this takes the form of question-asking and space for mutual reflection. When I ask questions, I am creating opportunity for myself to listen more and for the person speaking to further expand on their thoughts. When I allow myself to genuinely consider what I’m hearing and begin to imagine the content from the other person’s perspective, I open my being to a new cognitive and emotional landscape and my mind to even deeper curiosity and inquiry. While I grapple with differences of perspective and the unknown territory that presents itself in every conversation with another person, I make sure to reflect back what I hear by offering statements like, “So, I’m hearing that (insert shared perspective). Is this what you meant?” or “Could you tell me more about (insert other person’s statement)?” This makes it significantly easier to clarify and discern what I may not immediately grasp and moves us both toward something shared.
When in pursuit of better listening through question-asking, it is key to resist the impulse to immediately respond to the answers given. Brief silences in conversation only appear to be uncomfortable, while actually doing the important work of creating space to pause and consider. The ability to verbally reflect back and have patience with responses is a valuable skill, as is the ability to reflect back what is communicated nonverbally. I like to pay attention to body language and match it–to me, this communicates the time taken to notice and therefore value the other person. If someone is crossing their arms, avoiding prolonged eye contact, or generally facing away from me, I take this as a potential indicator of emotional discomfort. Regardless of their cause, these nonverbal behaviors typically require a sensitive response, which could look like offering more physical space, reflecting their nonverbals and thereby not requiring them to make eye contact, and using tone of voice to communicate care for the overall safety of the situation. Establishing trust is essential to any meaningful conversation and a great deal of trust comes from noticing, respecting, and responding to each others’ emotions. While matching body language is helpful for most interactions, it is also possible, and wise, to set the tone of the conversation by directly facing the person, because so often where we direct our bodies is where we direct our attention. These are some of the things I’ve learned in my own listening and communication practices, but by remembering that everyone approaches interaction from their own life experiences and listening close for that context, true connection grows all the more possible.
What we have to offer each other is rich with nuance, each thought tucked within unique, personal histories. As we hone our attention to what others say and mean, we improve the quality of our collective understanding. Yet the listening I’ve been talking about is not limited to the world outside the mind but also involves the interior life of every listener. What I mean by this is, the more time taken to listen, suspend assumptions, and ask clarifying questions, the more articulate and exacting our own internal thoughts and communication become. This makes me wonder how you think about the words you hear and speak. My thoughts are with yours as I mentally walk through the words and ideas I’ve written–where did you pause? When and what did you feel? Do you agree or disagree and with what parts? Do you have more questions?
I so hope you have more questions.