If you’re interested in developing your capacity to listen, here’s an exercise you can try. Find a news or call-in program on the radio or on television with commentators who hold completely different opinions than you do and draw upon a belief system that you disagree with.
As you listen to the commentary, imagine that you’re a cartoon character in a comic strip and the cartoonist has drawn a thought bubble over your head. Since it’s an imaginary comic strip, let’s make it a thought and feeling bubble. Now imagine populating the bubble over your cartoon avatar’s head with the unfiltered thoughts and feelings provoked by the commentary. You could literally draw a thought bubble on a piece of paper and note your reactions. Remember to give yourself permission to fill the bubble with the thoughts and feelings in their raw state, just as they occur to you. Spelling doesn’t count. What you have in the thought bubble is all the noise and all the funk that draws our attention away from what we might learn from listening. This, by the way, is the easy part of the exercise.
Scholars who conduct qualitative research by interviewing people about their experiences of a particular phenomenon recognize the dilemma of getting the data to pass cleanly through the thought bubble. In fact, some scholars don’t believe one can completely separate a participant’s description of a phenomenon from the researcher’s interpretation of the description. For the purposes of improving your ability to listen, we don’t have to settle the debate about the nature of a qualitative study’s conclusions. We can, however, take advantage of an approach used by qualitative researchers to stem the wellspring of thought bubble noise and funk. A technique called “bracketing.”
Edmund Husserl, considered the founder of phenomenology, developed the term “bracketing” to describe the act of setting aside preconceptions. For Husserl, direct access to the essence of an experience being investigated involves recognizing and managing biases and assumptions. In other words, if we want to understand something, bracketing is a technique intended to help us notice the contents of our thought bubble so that we don’t confuse what we’re investigating with our own noise and funk. When someone asks you to “keep an open mind,” the request can be interpreted as “please don’t allow your preconceptions to distract you from hearing what I’m about to say.”
In our daily interactions, we’re not trying to study the essence of phenomena. Still, collaborating often starts with figuring out how to understand one another. If my goal is to understand your point-of-view, I have to be willing to bracket my own point-of-view. Otherwise, I’m at risk of applying my preconceptions to what you’re telling me and misinterpreting your unique experience of the situation as some function of my experience of the situation. If you think you’re immune to misinterpreting a situation without setting aside preconceptions, I invite you to check out this YouTube clip.
It’s useful to have a term, like “bracketing,” to bring a complicated and challenging concept quickly to mind. It’s one thing to understand what bracketing means. It’s another thing entirely to develop the skill of bracketing. So, let’s return to our exercise.
As you’re listening to commentary that provokes a thought bubble full of noise and funk, bring it in; bracket it. Try replacing your reactions with curiosity. Bracketing is not erasing. You don’t have to eliminate your thoughts and feelings; how could you? You’re developing the skill of recognizing the difference between the beliefs, assumptions, and judgments formed from your lived experience and the information available to you about the lived experience of the person you’re trying to understand. For example, if one statement in your thought bubble looks something like “That’s insane!” simply notice that the thought is yours; it has nothing to do with understanding the comment from the speaker that provoked the reaction. If you allow the judgment “That’s insane!” to draw your attention from the information being provided, you not only miss important data, your ability to request more information is compromised. Even if you could ask the commentator a reasonable question, like “Why do you say that?” If you can’t bracket your judgment about the sanity of the statement, you’ll simply hear further justification of your conclusion. For more on the phenomenon that describes the consequences of seeking information without managing our noise and funk, see Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference model or the psychological construct know as confirmation bias.
It’s easier to keep an open mind when there’s not much riding on our judgments and beliefs. When our worldview feels threatened or we imagine high stakes associated with maintaining our position, our own thoughts and feelings demand our attention. Bracket practice helps fortify our ability to isolate the noise and funk so we can get an unobstructed view into what’s going on. Bracketing prevents the pollution of our preconceptions from contaminating the quality of the understanding available to us.