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The art of listening | Aeon

Husband and Wife (detail, 1945) by Milton Avery. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R Neuberger. Photo by Allen Phillips/ Wadsworth Atheneum

Husband and Wife (detail, 1945) by Milton Avery. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R Neuberger. Photo by Allen Phillips/ Wadsworth Atheneum

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The art of listening

To listen well is not only a kindness to others but also, as the psychologist Carl Rogers made clear, a gift to ourselves

by M M Owen + BIO

Husband and Wife (detail, 1945) by Milton Avery. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R Neuberger. Photo by Allen Phillips/ Wadsworth Atheneum

Writing in Esquire magazine in 1935, Ernest Hemingway offered this advice to young writers: ‘When people talk, listen completely… Most people never listen.’ Even though Hemingway was one of my teenage heroes, the realisation crept up on me, somewhere around the age of 25: I am most people. I never listen.

Perhaps never was a little strong – but certainly my listening often occurred through a fog of distraction and self-regard. On my worst days, this could make me a shallow, solipsistic presence. Haltingly, I began to try to reach inside my own mental machinery, marshal my attention differently, listen better. I wasn’t sure what I was doing; but I had crossed paths with a few people who, as a habit, gave others their full attention – and it was powerful. It felt rare, it felt real; I wanted them around.

As a culture, we treat listening as an automatic process about which there is not a lot to say: in the same category as digestion, or blinking. When the concept of listening is addressed at any length, it is in the context of professional communication; something to be honed by leaders and mentors, but a specialisation that everyone else can happily ignore. This neglect is a shame. Listening well, it took me too long to discover, is a sort of magic trick: both parties soften, blossom, they are less alone.

Along the way, I discovered that Carl Rogers, one of the 20th century’s most eminent psychologists, had put a name to this underrated skill: ‘active listening’. And though Rogers’s work was focused initially on the therapeutic setting, he drew no distinction between this and everyday life: ‘Whatever I have learned,’ he wrote, ‘is applicable to all of my human relationships.’ What Rogers learnt was that listening well – which necessarily involves conversing well and questioning well – is one of the most accessible and most powerful forms of connection we have.

The paucity of my listening powers dawned on me as a byproduct of starting to meditate. This is not to make some claim to faux enlightenment – simply to say that meditation is the practice of noticing what you notice, and meditators tend to carry this mindset beyond the yoga mat, and begin to see their own mind more clearly. Among a smorgasbord of other patterns and quirks, what I saw was a self that, too often, didn’t listen.

The younger me enjoyed conversation. But a low, steady egoism meant that what I really enjoyed was talking. When it was someone else’s turn to talk, the listening could often feel like a chore. I might be passively absorbing whatever was being said – but a greater part of me would be daydreaming, reminiscing, making plans. I had a habit of interrupting, in the rather masculine belief that, whatever others had to say, I could say better for them. Sometimes, I would zone out and tune back in to realise that I’d been asked a question. I had a horrible habit, I saw, of sitting in silent linguistic craftsmanship, shaping my answer for when my turn came around – and only half-listening to what I’d actually be responding to.

The exceptions to this state of affairs, I began to see, were situations where there existed self-interest. If the subject was me, or material that might be of benefit to me, my attention would automatically sharpen. It was very easy to listen to someone explaining what steps I needed to take to ace a test or make some money. It was easy to listen to juicy gossip, particularly of the kind that made me feel fortunate or superior. It was easy to listen to debates on topics where I had a burning desire to be right. It was easy to listen to attractive women.

Bad listening signals to the people around you that you don’t care about them

On bad days, this attentional autopilot constricted me. On topics of politics or philosophy, this made me a bore and a bully. People avoided disagreeing with me on anything, even trivial points, because they knew it would balloon into annoyance and a failure to listen to their reasoning. In my personal life, too often, I could forget to support or lift up those around me. The flipside of not listening is not questioning – because, when you don’t want to listen, the last thing you want to do is trigger the exact scenario in which you are most expected to listen. And so I didn’t ask my friends serious questions often enough. I liked jokes, and I liked gossip; but I’d forget to ask them the real stuff. Or I’d ask them things they’d already told me a week ago. Or forget to ask about their recent job interview or break-up.

This is where bad listening does the most damage: it signals to the people around you that you don’t care about them, or you do but only in a skittish, flickering sort of a way. And so people become wary of opening up, or asking for advice, or leaning on you in the way that we lean on those people we truly believe to be big of heart.

All of the above makes for rather a glum picture, I know. I don’t want to overstate things. I wasn’t a monster. I cared for people and, when I concentrated, I could show it. I was liked, I made my way in the world, I apparently possessed what we call charisma. Plenty of the time, I listened fine. But this may be precisely the point: you can coast along in life as a bad listener. We tend to forgive it, because it’s common.

Kate Murphy, in her book You’re Not Listening (2020), frames modern life as particularly antagonistic to good listening:

[W]e are encouraged to listen to our hearts, listen to our inner voices, and listen to our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and with intent to other people.

Why do we accept bad listening? Because, I think, listening well is hard, and we all know it. Like all forms of self-improvement, breaking this carapace requires intention, and ideally guidance.

When I discovered Rogers’s writings on listening, it was confirmation that, in many conversations, I had been getting it all wrong. When listening well, wrote Rogers and his co-author Richard Evans Farson in 1957, the listener ‘does not passively absorb the words which are spoken to him. He actively tries to grasp the facts and the feelings in what he hears, and he tries, by his listening, to help the speaker work out his own problems.’ This was exactly the stance I had only rarely adopted.

Born in 1902 – in the same suburb of Chicago as Hemingway, three years earlier – Rogers had a strict religious upbringing. As a young man, he seemed destined for the ministry. But in 1926, he crossed the road from Union Theological Seminary to Columbia University, and committed himself to psychology. (At this time, psychology was a field so new and so in vogue that, in 1919, during negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, Sigmund Freud had secretly advised Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador in Paris.)

Rogers’s early work was focused on what were then called ‘delinquent’ children; but, by the 1940s, he was developing a new approach to psychotherapy, which came to be termed ‘humanistic’ and ‘person-centred’. Unlike Freud, Rogers believed that all of us possess ‘strongly positive directional tendencies’. Unhappy people, he believed, were not broken; they were blocked. And as opposed to the then-dominant modes of psychotherapy – psychoanalysis and behaviourism – Rogers believed that a therapist should be less a problem-solver, and more a sort of skilled midwife, drawing out solutions that already existed in the client. All people possess a deep urge to ‘self-actualise’, he believed, and it is the therapist’s job to nurture this urge. They were there to ‘release and strengthen the individual, rather than to intervene in his life’. Key to achieving this goal was careful, focused, ‘active’ listening.

That this perspective doesn’t seem particularly radical today is a testament to Rogers’s legacy. As one of his biographers, David Cohen, writes, Rogers’s therapeutic philosophy ‘has become part of the fabric of therapy’. Today, in the West, many of us believe that going to therapy can be an empowering and positive move, rather than an indicator of crisis or sickness. This shift owes a great deal to Rogers. So too does the expectation that a therapist will allow themselves to enter into our thinking, and express a careful but tangible empathy. Where Freud focused on the mind in isolation, Rogers valued more of a merging of minds – boundaried, but intimate.

On bad days, I would wait hawk-like for things I could correct or belittle

Active listening, for Rogers, was essential to creating the conditions for growth. It was one of the key ingredients in making another person feel less alone, less stuck, and more capable of self-insight.

Rogers held that the basic challenge of listening is this: consciousnesses are isolated from one another, and there are thickets of cognitive noise between them. Cutting through the noise requires effort. Listening well ‘requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us.’ This empathic leap is a real effort. It is much easier to judge another’s point of view, analyse it, categorise it. But to put it on, like a mental costume, is very hard. As a teenager, I was a passionate atheist and a passionate Leftist. I saw things as very simple: all believers are gullible, and all conservatives are psychopaths, or at minimum heartless. I could hold to my Manichean view precisely because I had made no effort to grasp anyone else’s viewpoint.

Another of my old mental blocks, also flagged by Rogers, is the instinct that anyone I’m talking to is likely dumber than me. This arrogance is terrible for any attempt at listening, as Rogers recognises: ‘Until we can demonstrate a spirit which genuinely respects the potential worth of an individual,’ he writes, we won’t be good listeners. Previously, on bad days, I would wait hawk-like for things I could correct or belittle. I would look for clues that this person was wrong, and could be made to feel wrong. But as Rogers writes, to listen well, we ‘must create a climate which is neither critical, evaluative, nor moralising’.

‘Our emotions are often our own worst enemies when we try to become listeners,’ he wrote. In short, a great deal of bad listening comes down to lack of self-control. Other people animate us, associations fly, we are pricked by ideas. (This is why we have built careful social systems around not discussing such things as religion or politics at dinner parties.) When I was 21, if someone suggested that some pop music was pretty good, or capitalism had some redeeming features, I was incapable of not reacting. This made it very hard for me to listen to anyone’s opinion but my own. Which is why, Rogers says, one of the first skills to learn is non-intervention. Patience. ‘To listen to oneself,’ he wrote, ‘is a prerequisite to listening to others.’ Here, the analogy with meditation is clear: don’t chase every thought, don’t react to every internal event, stay centred. Today, in conversation, I try to constantly remind myself: only react, only intervene, when invited or when it will obviously be welcome. This takes practice, possibly endless practice.

And when we do intervene, following Rogers, we must resist the ever-present urge to drag the focus of the conversation back to ourselves. Sociologists call this urge ‘the shift response’. When a friend tells me they’d love to visit Thailand, I must resist the selfish pull to leap in with Oh yeah, Thailand is great, I spent Christmas in Koh Lanta once, did I ever tell you about the Muay Thai class I did? Instead, I must stay with them: where exactly do they want to go, and why? Sociologists call this ‘the support response’. To listen well is to step back, keep the focus with someone else.

A nice example of Rogers’s approach, taken from his career, is his experience during the Second World War. Rogers was asked by the US Air Force to assess the psychological health of gunners, among whom morale appeared low. By being patient, and nonjudgmental, and gentle with his attention, Rogers discovered that the gunners had been bottling up one of their chief complaints: they resented civilians. Returning to his hometown and attending a football game, reported one pilot, ‘all that life and gaiety and luxury – it makes you so mad’. Rogers didn’t suggest any drastic intervention, or push any change in view. He recommended that the men be allowed to be honest about their anger, and process it openly, without shame. Their interlocutors, Rogers said, should begin by simply listening to them – for as long as it took, until they were unburdened. Only then should they respond.

Much like meditating, listening in this way takes work. It may take even more work outside the therapy room, in the absence of professional expectation. At all times, for almost all of us, our internal monologue is running, and it is desperate to spill from our brain onto our tongue. Stemming the flow requires intention. This is necessary because, even when we think an intervention is positive, it may be self-centred. We might not feel it, Rogers says, but, typically, when we offer our interpretation or input, ‘we are usually responding to our own needs to see the world in certain ways’. When I first began to observe myself as a listener, I saw how difficult I found it to simply let people finish their sentences. I noticed the infinite wave of impatience on which my attention rode. I noticed the slippery temptation of asking questions that were not really questions at all, but impositions of opinion disguised as questions. The better road, I began to see, was to stay silent. To wait.

The active listener’s job is to simply be there, to focus on ‘thinking with people instead of for or about them’. This thinking with requires listening for what Rogers calls ‘total meaning’. This means registering both the content of what they are saying, and (more subtly) the ‘feeling or attitude underlying this content’. Often, the feeling is the real thing being expressed, and the content a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy. Capturing this feeling involves real concentration, especially as nonverbal cues – hesitation, mumbling, changes in posture – are crucial. Zone out, half-listen, and the ‘total meaning’ will entirely elude us.

Everyone wants to be listened to. Why else the cliché that people fall in love with their therapists?

And though the bad listener loves to internally multitask while someone else is talking, faking it won’t work. As Rogers writes, people are alert to the mere ‘pretence of interest’, resenting it as ‘empty and sterile’. To sincerely listen means to marshal a mixture of agency, compassion, attention and commitment. This ‘demands practice’, Rogers said, and ‘may require changes in our own basic attitudes’.

Rogers’s theories were developed in a context where one person is attempting, explicitly, to help another person heal and grow. But Rogers was always explicit about the fact that his work was ‘about life’. Of his theories, he said that ‘the same lawfulness governs all human relationships’.

I think I started off from a lower point; by nature, I think my brain tends toward distraction and self-regard. But one would not need to be a bad listener to benefit from Rogers’s ideas. Even someone whose autopilot is an empathetic, interested listener can find much in his work. Rogers did more than anyone else to explore listening, systemise its dynamics, and record his professional explorations.

Certainly, being a good listener had an impact on Rogers’s own life. As another of his biographers, Howard Kirschenbaum, told me, Rogers discovered that ‘listening empathically to others was enormously healing and freeing, in both therapy and other relationships’. At his 80th birthday party, a cabaret was staged in which two Carl Rogers impersonators listened to one another in poses of exaggerated empathy. The well-meaning gag was a compliment; in a somewhat rare case of intellectuals actually embodying the ideas they espouse, Rogers was remembered as an excellent listener by everyone who knew him. Despite the kind of foibles that can weigh down any life – a reliance on alcohol, a frustration with monogamy – Rogers appears to have been a decent man: warm, open, and never cruel.

That he was able to carry his theories into his life should give encouragement, even to those of us who aren’t world-famous psychologists. Everyone wants to be listened to. Why else the cliché that people fall in love with their therapists? Why else does all seduction start with riveted attention? Consider your own experience, and you will likely find a direct correlation between the people you feel love you, and the people who actually listen to the things you say. The people who never ask us a thing are the people we drift away from. The people who listen so hard that they pull new things out of us – who hear things we didn’t even say – are the ones we grab on to for life.

Perhaps above all, Rogers understood the stakes involved in listening well. All of us, when we are our best selves, want to bring growth to the people we choose to give our time to. We want to help them unlock themselves, stand taller, think better. The dynamic may not be as direct as with a therapist; there is more of an equal footing – but when our relationships are healthy, we want those around us to thrive. Listening well, Rogers showed, is the simplest route there. Be with people in the right way, and they become ‘enriched in courage and self-confidence’. They feel the releasing glow of attention, and develop an ‘underlying confidence in themselves’. If we don’t want this for our friends, then we are not their friends.

Indeed, such is the generosity of active listening that one can view the practice as one that borders on the spiritual. Though Rogers traded theology for psychology in his early 20s, he always maintained an interest in spirituality. He enjoyed the work of Søren Kierkegaard, an existentialist Christian; and, over the years, he had public discussions with the theologians Paul Tillich and Martin Buber. In successful therapy sessions, said Rogers, both therapist and client can find themselves in ‘a trance-like feeling’ where ‘there is, to borrow Buber’s phrase, a real “I-Thou” relationship’. Of his relationship to his clients, Rogers said: ‘I would like to go with him on the fearful journey into himself.’

Perhaps this is a bit rich for you; perhaps you would rather frame active listening as simply good manners, or a neat interpersonal hack. The point is: really listening to others might be an act of irrational generosity. People will eat up your attention; it could be hours or years before they ever turn the same attention back on you. Sometimes, joyfully, your listening will yield something new, deliver them somewhere. Sometimes, the person will respond with generosity of their own, and the reciprocity will be powerful. But often, nothing. Only rarely will people notice, let alone thank you, for your efforts. Yet this generosity of attention is what people deserve.

And lest this all sound a bit pious – active listening is not pure altruism. Listening well, as Rogers said, is ‘a growth experience’. It allows us to get the best of others. The carousel of souls is endless. People have deeply felt and fascinating lives, and they can enfranchise us to worlds we would never otherwise know. If we truly listen, we expand our own intelligence, emotional range, and sense that the world remains open to discovery. Active listening is a kindness to others but, as Rogers was always quick to make clear, it is also a gift to ourselves.

Brains learn from other brains, and listening well is the simplest way to draw a thread, open a channel

Rogers became a hero of the 1960s counterculture. He admired their utopian dreams of psychic liberation and uninhibited communication; late in life, he was drawn to the New Age writings of Carlos Castañeda. All of this speaks to one of the key critiques of Rogers’s philosophy, both during his lifetime and today: that he was too optimistic. Rogers recognised himself that he was, in Cohen’s words, ‘incorrigibly positive’. His critics called him a sort of Pollyanna of the mind, and thought him naive for believing that such simple interventions as empathy and listening could trigger transformation in people. (Perhaps certain readers will harbour similar critiques about my own beliefs as expressed here.)

Those inclined to agree with this assessment of Rogers will probably think that I have overstated the case. Listening as love? Listening as spiritual practice? But in my own life, a renewed approach to listening has improved how I relate to others, and I now believe listening is absurdly under-discussed. Good listening is complex, subtle, slippery – but it is also right here, it lives in us, and we can work on it every day. Unlike the abstractions of so much of ethics and so much of philosophy, our listening is there to be honed, every day. Like a muscle, it can be trained. Like an intellect, it can be tested. In the very same moment, it can spur both our own growth and the growth of others. Brains learn from other brains, and listening well is the simplest way to draw a thread, open a channel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I couldn’t write nonfiction that anyone else actually wanted to read until I began trying to truly listen.

‘The greatest compliment that was ever paid me,’ said Henry David Thoreau, ‘was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.’ Left on autopilot, I can still be a bad listener. I’ll interrupt, finish sentences, chivvy people along. I suspect many of the people I know still find me to be, on balance, an average listener. But I try! With anyone I can impact – and especially those whose souls I can help to light up – I follow Rogers; I offer as much ‘of safety, of warmth, of empathic understanding, as I can genuinely find in myself to give.’ And I open myself to whatever I can learn. I fail in my attentions, again and again. But I tune back in, again and again. I believe it is working.

Thinkers and theoriesSelf-improvementPsychiatry and psychotherapy

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