The Art of Listening

Explorative listening as a way to be with others.

Posted Mar 26, 2019

A little over a year ago, my closest friends and I lost Dr. Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba. As is so often the case with deeply felt loss—whether that of a friend, or a grandparent, or a relationship—we struggled for some time to put into words just what it was about her that we’d forever be missing. In my work as a therapist, I’ve witnessed how the same soaring sources of beauty gifted by another’s presence serve as tortuous reminders of our loss. These reminders can evoke the deepest lows—the sort of lows that make us ache in a way that feels like we’re destined to break, as if the pain of getting through the tough stuff wasn’t so normally human, and as though getting through it weren’t possible.  

It is, of course. What ultimately initiated the process of healing was being listened to by others—deeply listened to. Not surprisingly, this remains exactly the quality that I appreciated most in Jenn and serves as the topic of this post—not least because it’s a small pleasure that connects us deeply to others [1], but also because it’s so tremendously difficult to actually be this sort of listener. What follows is one attempt at distilling the core elements of this skill, inspired by the exemplar I loved so much.

The sort of listening Jenn (and close friends since) excelled at made it pretty clear that not all listening is the same. In what we might call responsive listening, the primary purpose is one of informational exchange or problem solving, and the listening itself manifests in permutational self-based if-this-then-that feedback patterns. For example, my friend answers a question about how they’d like to spend a sunny afternoon together. I then crunch this information against a backdrop of logistical concerns, my own desires, and so on—I respond, we negotiate some tricky timing around separate dinners post-sunset, and then we’re off to the park.

In negotiating an evening in the park and engaging in responsive listening, I must listen to my friend’s stated wish (information being exchanged) while considering my own (self-basis) in order to respond appropriately (feedback exchange) and arrive at our mutual goal: a shared afternoon prior to separate plans post-sunset. This sort of listening isn’t bad, even if it is perfunctory—indeed, all other human cooperation rests on our ability to communicate, and sometimes we really do just need to get things done. But let’s acknowledge for a second that this isn’t the sort of listening likely to be recalled so fondly by others in our absence, and it’s not the kind that we seek when we need to be vulnerable or venture into more emotional territory. It’s not the kind the forges connection in the way most of us seek.

Emotional intimacy involves a second, deeper form of listening—something we might call explorative listening. In this, the goal is simply to be with another person where they’re at as they speak. Sounds easy, right?

Not so much. It turns out this level of communication is much more difficult, and requires that we shed the template of responsive listening. In contrast, explorative listening is devoid of:

1.     Obligatory and expected specific informational exchange or problem solving

2.     Goals to be met by the end of the conversation

3.     Reflexive self-driven responses to the other’s exchanges

Research has defined this sort of listening in differing ways (e.g., attentive listening [2], active listening [3], or interpersonal empathic listening [4], to name a few among the potential many), but the core features seem to be:

1.     Other-focus/temporary exclusion of the self in the process  

2.     Use of verbal and nonverbal cues indicating attention, understanding, and nonjudgment

3.     Curiosity without judgment (empathic exploration)

In a scenario where someone is expressing some discomfort at work, explorative listening shifts the focus away from one’s own desires or needs and toward the exploration of the other. Within this template, the conversation is free of personal goals, expectations of the other, or any self-interested need for the conversation to arrive at any point at all. Instead, responses are encouraging and nonjudgmental—nudging only towards further exploration and expression. In general, this is accomplished in the form of back channeling [3] (verbal and warm “mmhmm” and “yeah” statements, timed appropriately), or nonverbal gestures, like slow nodding, gently held eye contact, and relaxed posture.

Truly adept listeners mirror the physical position of their speakers, and match their vocal tones in gentler hues, effectively setting the stage for the namesake component of explorative listening: that of the exploration itself.

If what we’ve said through our actions above is as follows: “I’m here. I’m with you. You can be how you are, and I’ll just go along with you,” what comes next is where the richness lies: in explorative listening, we move with the speaker past the vagaries of first-draft dialogue [5] to what lies beneath. It’s not enough to hear that something at work was troubling—adept listeners are curious as to why this particular interaction ruffled the speaker so, and they gently prod. “Go on,” they might offer—or, “Hmmm, I wonder why that is?” At times, silent stillness may be the gesture that indicates a readiness for whatever comes next [5,6].

This process isn’t always easy—and it requires that the explorative listener actively rally against the egoism present in responsive listening. Perhaps, for example, encouraging another to explore their responses to conflict serves as a reminder of our own, of which we are somewhat embarrassed. In these moments, explorative listening’s true gift is that of selflessness; our focus on the other doesn’t preclude our own stuff—it just puts it on hold until the other has moved from wherever they picked it up to wherever they feel comfortable leaving it. 

Being listened to in this way feels like a gift because it is. How often are we truly allowed the freedom to explore the messiness so present in our jumbled thoughts [7], or to actually be invited to explore our experiences alongside someone who makes it so clear they’re willing to go where we want to go and remain a steady balance to our own stumbling [8]? How often are we gifted another’s presence and witnessing without the (well-intentioned) interruptions which hallmark responsive listening and (at times) seem to insist that our turn is over, or that our divulsions have somehow become unpalatable or—perhaps worse—boring?

For most of us, I’m guessing, the answer is “not often enough.” I’m guessing the opposite is ironically also true: that for all the good this feels to receive, so many of us (myself included) overlook the importance of giving it to others as we move throughout our days. This would seem remarkable were it not so wondrously human: there are only so many hours in a day, and at times it feels as though there just isn’t much left in the tank to give when the time comes to step up and switch from responsive to explorative.  

Yet this is what I remember most about Jenn. Her form of hearing and being with others is difficult, sure—and yet it requires no particularly superhuman skill, even though most of us struggle to do it. It’s so incredibly meaningful, and yet seems rare—even though I’ve yet to meet someone who wouldn’t want another chance to experience this with Jenn, or to offer it to her in return.

And—at least in my case and like so many of the best things—it’s often not appreciated fully until we’re made aware of its loss. In losing Jenn, the remarkable sour has slowly transitioned to the (perhaps) inevitable bittersweet—for the past year, I’ve been at once crushed by the loss of her and the example of listening she saw fit to dispense so freely, and at the same time so sweetly reminded of this gift she’d given each time I’ve experienced it through others.

It’s as though she were at once both gone and still here.

Still listening.

Still gently reminding us to do this for others, for as long and as much as we can.

References

[1] The School of Life. Small Pleasures. (2016). London: The School of Life.

[2] Pasupathi, M., & Rich, B. (2005). Inattentive listening undermines self-verification in personal storytelling. Journal of Personality, 73(4), 1051-1086.

[3] Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T.N., Nussbeck, F.W. & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762-772.

[4] Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy, its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

[5] The School of Life. On Being Nice. (2017). London: The School of Life.

[6] Maun, A. (2014).  The art of doing almost nothing: how a core Taijiquan principle can help us to understand turning points in therapeutic processes. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(2), 77-78.

[7] The School of Life. Self-Knowledge. (2017). London: The School of Life.

[8] The School of Life. What Is Psychotherapy? (2018). London: The School of Life.