The Inner Art of Listening


My wife’s family owns several cottages on Canandaigua Lake. We’ve been spending part of the summer there for decades. It’s green. And it’s serene. Unless there’s a storm – like the other night. We were awakened at 2 am by brilliant flashes of lightening, booming thunder, and pouring rain. Natural drama.

“It’s like a scene from some monster movie,” I remarked as the lightening struck again, illuminating our room.

My brain was making an association.

Dark and stormy night = monster movie. Your brain is always making these kinds of associations. It’s a useful strategy. It saves time and energy.

You don’t have to start every situation, with a clean mental slate. You can rely on your associations to provide you with ideas, insights, and options.

This is efficient.

You can trust your associations, your memory, and your past experience to guide you. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. But, useful as this associational process is, it’s also limiting.

Because, when you rely on associations to shape your perceptions, in a fundamental way, you’re not dealing with what’s in front of you.

You’re responding to an image, or association, from the past.

Your associations overlay the present moment with the filters of the past. The association acts as a filter. This filter, while it helps you respond efficiently, also blocks you from dealing with the immediate situation in a fresh and creative way.

This filtering and associational process happens automatically without conscious intent. And thus, your perceptions, ideas, and actions can easily become automated, unconscious.

Whenever you’re listening to another person, this filtering process is at work.

Imagine going into your boss’s office. Even before you walk through the door, all your past experiences with her are being accessed. All your filters are in place. So, when you interact with your boss, unless you make a conscious effort, most of the time you’ll be relying on your automatic associations to guide your interactions.

This is also the case when you’re dealing with someone for the first time.

Rather than meet them in a fresh, unguarded, and open way, the brain automatically begins searching it’s internal databases for examples of people, conversations, and situations that were similar to this one. Similar enough sot that you can use those past experiences as templates to guide your interactions in the present.

The problem is that these templates limit you.

They constrain your perceptions – overlaying a filter of the past on your present experience. Without your conscious awareness. Unless you start to notice the filters as filters. Rather than look at people through your filters – step back and look at the filters themselves. When you step back, in consciousness, you are able to witness filters as filters. To observe thoughts as thoughts.

Taking this step back in consciousness is a huge step forward in terms of your creativity, influence, and understanding.

This step back in consciousness frees you from the constraints of your habitual thoughts and filters. It gives you back choice. The choice to use the filters and associations when they work. And the choice to set them aside so you can develop new more appropriate ways of responding to what life presents.

One of the most important ways of stepping back in consciousness is to start to “listen to your own listening”.

This idea of listening to your own listening comes from the physicist David Boehm. Boehm was one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In his later years, he became fascinated with the practice of dialogue and how to enhance human communication in order to be able to solve challenging problems.

And he realized, the key to creative, problem-solving dialogue is the capacity to listen deeply to others.

But, Boehm discovered that deep listening to others doesn’t really happen unless you’re able to “listen to your own listening”.

Because if you’re not doing this – then your automatic listening-filters will be distorting how you understand, experience, and interact with others.

So, how do you become aware of your listening-filters?

You can’t see them. But, you can feel them.

By becoming a student how your body feels and reacts – you learn to discern the physical presence of these automatic filters.

Here’s how: think about an important communication that it’s important for you to make. Imagine the person that you’ll be communicating with. Picture the setting.

And then, pay attention to your body.

Notice what you’re feeling – physically – as you recall that difficulty. Just stay with the physical sensations. How does your body respond to that memory? Where is there tension? Heat? Discomfort?

These are the somatic associations that are triggered by this situation.

These tensions are the physical evidence that a filter is in place. That you’re brain has accessed a memory-based template AND that it’s shaping your perceptions, insights, and decisions.

You don’t need to be in the actual situation to study your bodily reactions. You just need to think about it.

The good news is that this pattern of physical tension doesn’t just relate to this one situation. Any experience that is similar enough will tend to activate this same sequence of bodily reactions.

This physical redundancy is good news.

Because, noticing and catching mental filters, as they arise, is kind of hard. What’s easier is noticing body tensions. Clenched jaw. Twitchy muscles. These kinds of signals are much more . . . tangible.

It means you can trust your body.

Whenever this pattern of tension arises – it means a filter is being stimulated. A reactive, tension-based, filter is insinuating itself between you and whatever and whoever is out there.

You can count on this. And thus, whenever this pattern of tension arises – STOP. Don’t make a decision. Don’t take an action. Don’t reach a conclusion. Just stop and be aware.

Notice the bodily tensions and recognize inwardly that this means your brain is in automatic-reaction- mode. And then take a breath. And set that tension aside.

In setting the tension aside, you set the filter aside.

They aren’t two separate things. Your mental listening-filter and your pattern of bodily tension are like two sides of a single coin. By becoming aware of and releasing your body tension – which is relatively easy – you can let go of your automatic mental filters.

Then, you can choose to listen afresh.

You can open not only your ears, but also your mind – and begin to discover new insights, new ideas, and new options as you listen to others liberated from your habitual filters of the past.

Then, even when communication thunder and lightening strike – you won’t end up in a rerun of some old monster movie.

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Categories Leadership · Learning · Mastery · Uncategorized

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Nick J. Arhontes // Aug 21, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Hi Coach.
    Some good techniques to move to deeper listening.
    I think the deep breathing and reminding my self to actually detach from the filters is something I can remember and implement. I’ll try this on upcoming conversations I might anticipate being tough ones.
    I’m taking on a new staff person on Monday. She’s known as a complainer type and quick critic. She’s used filters successfully her whole career to allow her to be efficient on a technical basis. But her relationships are wrecks at times and she’ll be managing a mdified team. We’ll see how I can move to deeper listening with myself to set a better example on this case study. I’ll study up on the Physics Prof. a bit too. Sounds like a person I would have enjoyed.
    Cheers & Thanks & Stay Healthy,

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