February 16, 2006

Deep Listening, Deep Reading, Deep Blogging

I’ve been reading about the practice of deep listening lately, a practice I’ve scorned in the past. (Well, didn’t I scorn just about everything back then?) Deep listening sounds pretty simple: you listen carefully without interrupting, and you maintain eye contact, and you give affirming responses that show that you’ve understood what the person is saying, and that whether or not you agree completely you accept that this is the way the person feels, and that you’re trying to see and feel the issue from the person’s perspective.

I used to think that this wasn’t deep listening, it was shallow listening. It didn’t require any analytic thought on the listener’s part, any give and take, any challenge to both parties to examine their positions. If you just sat there and kept nodding with a small smile, automatically saying, “Yes,” and “I understand,” you could get away with tuning out, as, I believe, a fair percentage of therapists do from time to time.

Actually, though, what I was objecting to, what I was inwardly caricaturing, wasn’t deep listening at all: it was a counterfeit, it was fake deep listening. And there was no reason for me to impugn real deep listening because of that.

I’ve tried some deep listening recently, and it turns out to be harder than I expected. I’ve always considered myself a good listener, because I’m fascinated by other people’s personalities, and quiet enough to give them time to talk, and because I can come up with interesting ripostes and interpretations. But I see now that a good deal (not all) of my listening consisted of trying to grab opportunities to make my own points and even to top the other person, using his or her statements as launching pads for my impressive flights. It’s not that I’m such a terrible interrupter – considering the background I come from, in which interruption was the accepted and sometimes the only means of switching speakers in a conversation, I’m far from it – but I’ve been a kind of conversational lurker, sitting back and waiting for my moment to step forward and shine.

In order to listen deeply, I have to change that attitude. I have to genuinely sit quiet – internally quiet as well as externally -- and make listening to the other person’s words my first priority. When responding, I have to refrain from giving unwanted advice or interjecting witticisms or turning the subject toward something I’ve prepared a brilliant remark about. I have to say something affirming and mean it, and in order to mean it I have to listen and think sincerely about the person’s message and show with my face and body, too, that I mean it. And even if I’m basically just mirroring the other person’s message, I need to do it in a way that shows I’ve incorporated it into my thoughts. Those things are simple but not easy, as the saying goes. I’m looking forward to much more practice at deep listening.

It occurred to me the other day that there might be an analogous process in reading: deep reading. I’ve been an instinctively critical reader all my life. When I read something, I want to see where I disagree with the author, poking holes in the logic, mentally parrying and slashing. When reading fiction I don’t pay as much attention to the plot and themes as to how the writer has set out the narrative, and I think about how I would have done it differently, how I would have improved the sentences and the scenes. By doing that, I’ve learned a lot about writing.

Teachers would love me for that kind of active reading; critical thinking is a skill English teachers in this country nowadays are desperately trying to cultivate in students. But I’ve been thinking what a refreshing change it would be for me to just read something and not talk back to the text, not analyze the author. I could try to empathize with the author’s perspective, and if I disagree with it I could set the disagreement aside and see what I could learn. I might contact the author’s spirit in a deeper way, and encounter some unexpected, enriching ideas, by looking steadily and patiently at his or her words rather than imagining my own words in their place.

The analogy with deep listening isn’t perfect, of course. Active, critical reading really is a desirable skill, especially in an age when so many of the messages thrown at us seem false. What I’m saying is that there may be room for another kind of reading skill alongside that: a skill of empathy and tolerance for the author’s chosen words and views, whether or not one believes that they’re the right ones. Not renouncing the critical faculty, but moving it out of my line of vision in order to truly see the object in front of me.

Then I started thinking about whether there could be an analogous form of deep writing: a respectful, responsive exchange between author and reader, both parties exercising patience and empathetic understanding. The answer came to me at once: it’s blogging.

Because of the Comments capacity, this is the form of writing in which the reader listens deeply and responds promptly with words that contribute to a dialogue between equals. There doesn’t have to be agreement or praise, but there needs to be a genuine, sincerely communicated interaction showing that the reader has truly read.

The analogy isn’t perfect here either. It’s totally all right if you just read and don’t respond at all. And disagreement – within the bounds of respect – is expected and welcomed.

But I think what I’m saying is that because of this instant interaction, blogging has the potential to make better writers of us. I think – I hope, anyway -- there’s a kind of natural selection for authenticity in the blogosphere, a pressure against pretence. Even the snarkies seem authentic: they’re showing what they are in all its ugliness. Whereas if you spend two years writing a book that’s mainly intended as a consumer product, with little and late response from thoughtful readers, there’s a pressure to pretend, to pose as an authority, to craft a salable persona, to act as if what you’re writing is the final answer.

One thing everyone knows right away about this post is that it isn’t a final answer to anything.