Podcasts have revolutionised my commuting life. The mere anticipation of a good story has transformed my daily grind into a delightful lucky dip of the best kind: I can’t lose!
Recently my ritual listening came to a grinding halt when TED's Radio Hour delivered up a particularly thoughtful episode: The Act Of Listening.
The ideas combined by this episode’s diverse speakers somehow managed to pull together several loose threads I've been mulling over. At its core was a clear message: listening can be a profound act of respect. It can also take many different forms. In 2017, this is a message I can believe in.
Here, some dimensions of listening.
In the introduction to her book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay connects the humanness of humans to the reason why it’s easy to lose faith in the causes we care about:
'The problem with movements is that, all too often, they are associated only with the most visible figures, the people with the biggest platforms and the loudest, most provocative voices...who advocate [causes] as part of their personal brand.'
I mean, altruism is probably dead at this point, but it’s a unique kind of disappointment when your passionate, articulate friend becomes a raging force of hate. We all have a ‘friend’ deploying statuses that make us cringe because somewhere between the #fakenews and cat memes, the meaning got lost (and a following gained). At what cost do they now retire their rhetoric?
In this instance, conversation is no longer constructive or about the intersectional nuances of a ‘movement’. (How are we supporting our WOC, women with disability, LGBTQIA or those with limited access to birth control when we look only to a cursory understanding of the gender pay gap? And how are we acknowledging our own privilege while doing so?).
In the online spaces we inhabit most, have movements become the enraged identity crisis of the loudest individuals? Amidst these voices and those that are equally righteous, lost or otherwise of the #StopAdani, #BringThemHere, #climatechange and #MeToo ‘movements’—how do we keep these important, critical, timely and maybe even revolutionary conversations for change, constructive?
Listening as what?
Take this in for a moment:
‘Jupiter sounds like ocean waves breaking up on a beach…’
Artist / technologist Honor Harger describes how she turns non-audible cosmic phenomena into sound (!):
‘...Through listening, one of the practices of turning a non-audible phenomena into sound is trying to work out if there’s something we can hear that we can’t see. Sometimes ears can be incredibly effective detectors of patterns in a way that perhaps our eyes, because we use them so much more, are not as effective at.
That’s the scientific answer. And then the human, or artistic answer is that there’s something quite emotionally fulfilling about being able to connect with something that is quite distant, and therefore quite abstract, as a star through the emotional mechanism of listening.’
Listening as non-audible phenomena.
Listening as not relying on the information our eyes give us.
Listening as connecting to the distant and / or abstract.
Listening as an emotional mechanism.
Evelyn Glennie, an expert solo percussionist and deaf musician describes how listening with just her pinkie finger is as important as listening with her whole body:
‘Sound is vibration and that can feed through the entire body, so in a way I see the body as a big ear...It's amazing that when you do open your hand up to allow the vibration to come through, that the tiniest difference can be felt with just the tiniest part of a finger."
It’s amazing what people (unconsciously) divulge when you really listen to them.
Listening as a whole body experience.
Overheard on the 58 tram, Melbourne CBD:
'I need to move away from puns in the advertising industry, the industry need emotional truths not literary truths.
Overheard on the 109 tram, Collingwood:
'I love Rye bread, it makes you so full.'
Overheard on the 96 tram, Melbourne CBD:
'You've got way more on Angelina Jolie.'
Listening as spying.
Four years ago I found myself quite by accident in a Meisner Technique class.
'Meisner' has been described as an approach to acting that is premised by a simple repetition exercise. At its core, Sanford Meisner’s legacy is grounded in re-training the actor to ‘really do’, where to ‘really do’ actually means to ‘really listen’. In order to 'really listen' in the exercise, one has to place all their attention entirely on the other actor and not themself. Simple.
After taking a deep, prolonged interest in the technique for its broader applications in life, I had the great honour of training with Meisner’s living and longest student, the great William Esper in New York.
I would have thought after spending years studying this technique that I would have come to reflect on listening for the respectful act that it can be. That I would have understood a moment for it being simply about the other person...by now. But Rev Jeffrey Brown’s account summarises something critical in very few words—and it landed for me. His account of how he reduced gang violence in his Boston community through the simple act of listening is a curveball.
The preacher’s story suggests that paradoxically in listening, what we are actually saying is, ‘I respect you enough to be open to what you have to say,’ or, ‘I think your point of view is valid.’ Which is arguably so much more than anything we can verbalise to the same effect.
If to listen is to respect, then does it logically follow that to incessantly verbalise is to offend? How can there ever be a defense for this when we consider Evelyn Glennie's truth: that even our pinkie fingers can listen?
Listening as an act of respect.