The Art of Listening

“Everything that needed to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

Erich Fromm

How often do you practice listening?

I used to believe that I could listen until I sat down to practice it. We often confuse hearing with listening, hearing being something that can happen while you’re doing something else. Listening, on the other hand, requires our full and undivided attention, both physically and psychologically.

In The Art of Listening, Erich Fromm says hearing is mechanical, unlike listening which is alive, “the proper word for dealing with that which is alive is “art.””

The same way we judge sounds in our environment, we judge the words spoken by others. 

“We can’t just listen by default,” Minna Salami says, “it’s an art form, it’s something that we need to practice. It’s especially important to cultivate and practice in times when we’re so polarised, and really struggle to understand the other.”

In a time where our attention has sadly become a commodity, the act of listening to someone can be a radical act of compassion and curiosity, or in the words of Simone Weil “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Of course not every word that is spoken is worth listening to, and not everything you could say or want to say, should be uttered. It’s a two-way process that requires respect from both the speaker and the listener. 

Being both a good listener and a good speaker requires you to be a good thinker. Hannah Arendt wrote about the importance of the inner voice and being able to have an inner dialogue with oneself as a precondition to having a conversation with another, or with the moral world. 

Sometimes we voice things to better understand them ourselves, sometimes we voice thoughts or ideas to like-minded people as a way to practice saying them out loud, or in order to bring them into existence.

One is often criticised for ‘preaching to the choir’ but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the purpose is to strengthen our thoughts, as Rebecca Solnit says, it’s about working in unison. To get to a unified voice usually takes practice, and in these situations we should use our voice to build on what was said, to reshape, expand, improve.

Unless the act of speaking is just about making a point or getting your speaking slot, something we see all too often at conferences. If we do not foresee or imagine any action or impact as a consequence of speaking, should we speak at all? 

Are we repeating the same thing to the same people expecting a different outcome? Do we put new information out without considering who it is for and what action may come as a result; are we adding to the noise? Should we, perhaps, focus our efforts on giving voice to those who have not had one, or amplify the voices of those who are not listened to?

“Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo… by redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values,” Rebecca Solnit wrote.

Yet nobody’s experience of listening is identical. Time, space, mood, personal experiences, all affect how we listen and how we perceive and interpret what is being said. Something said today can have a completely different meaning to me when said a week or a year later.

Composer and Sound Artist Pauline Oliveros, founder of the practice of Deep Listening says listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound: “Through accessing many forms of listening we grow and change whether we listen to the sounds of our daily lives, the environment or music. Deep Listening takes us below the surface of our consciousness and helps to change or dissolve limiting boundaries.”

So I will continue this post with an invitation to listen, really listen. That is, if you’re ready, as Gordon Hempton cautions, “what you listen to and what you hear may very well turn your world upside down.” 

Words, Veronica Yates and Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

1 comment

  1. I have embarked on this journey with you since January 2021.
    I have been reading and meditating on the questions and reflections you share through the blog. Every time I have to pause and catch my breath.
    And this time, I felt like writing a comment to say that I’m there, I’m listening, it’s resonating.
    Thank you !

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