As I write this post, I am in Mexico City having just spent the day with a group of mid-career managers facilitating a program about how to have more productive conversations at work. I cannot say for sure what the participants got from today’s session, but I definitely walked away with some food for thought.
The fact that today’s workshop, one I have facilitated dozens of times, affected me differently, might have had something to do with a recent interview I heard with Thich Nant Hanh on the NPR program Humankind. Nhat Hanh is a Zen monk and peace activist who spoke eloquently of the transformative power of deep listening. I have believed for most of my professional life that the capacity for listening is vital to increasing creativity, teamwork, and leadership in organizations. After hearing the interview with Nhat Hanh, and reflecting on today’s session in Mexico, I have started to reframe listening as an ethical imperative in addition to a critical skill.
This morning, I led a simple exercise my firm has used for years to demonstrate the power of listening (and not listening). Participants pair up. One person speaks about a topic they are passionately interested in and the other person is asked to listen with undivided attention to the speaker. The listener also is told that after thirty seconds, the workshop leader will wander by and announce that there is only a minute left in the exercise. During the set-up of the exercise, the listeners also are prepped to stop listening when the workshop leader gives the time check. The listeners are invited to become distracted and bored; in other words, the listeners shift focus and attention away from the speaker. The speakers are aware of the instructions given to the listeners, yet it does not seem to matter that they know what is coming.
Even though it is a fairly common exercise in listening skills training, I am always stunned by the feelings that the speakers express when we debrief the activity. This morning I heard comments like, “I was angry and started speaking louder,” and “I gave up and stopped talking,” and “I lost confidence.” The exercise led to a robust discussion about how people feel when someone stops listening to them. It began to dawn on me just how rarely I consider the ethics of my inattentiveness. I had not, until today, considered the moral implications of distraction.
I have started to question what is really behind how I listen under various circumstances. Phenomenologists use the term “bracketing” to describe an intentional setting aside of one’s opinions and suspending judgment; many hermeneutic scholars doubt it’s possible to think ourselves out of our own way. Either way, I think listening needs a change of preposition. Instead of “listening to” something, it might help if we clarified for ourselves what we are “listening for.” There is a subtle but important difference between listening to someone’s story and listening for someone’s story. The question I am pondering is whether one form of listening is more ethical than the other.
In discussing the importance of listening skills for actors, especially when improvising, Keith Johnstone, in his 1999 work, Impro for Storytellers, offered a piece of advice, “Instead of telling actors that they must be good listeners (which is confusing), we should say, ‘Be altered by what’s said.’” If I am not open to being altered by what is said, am I acting unethically?