Two Kinds of Listening

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    This past week I had a four-way ‘skype dialogue’ with three fellows—two on the other side of the pond, in England and Ireland, and two on each side of this continent. It was a lesson in the difference between calculated and authentic listening.

    The ostensible thread between us was a shared interest in the proposal and process of dialogue by the late physicist David Bohm. He had put forth, and practiced as I saw firsthand, a form of group inquiry based on questioning and listening for insight together. Neither occurred in our trans-Atlantic audio-only skype dialogue.

    As Bohm said about genuine dialogue, “people are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in a pool of common meaning which is capable of constant development and change.” In this view, questioning and listening are the central actions of thinking together, which has no method.

    Things started out fine, although in hindsight there was a red flag right out of the blocks when the ‘host’ (one person’s server acts as a gateway) said that he had to leave after an hour (a two-hour allotment is suggested) to eat a roast beef dinner with friends. He said we could continue without him, and we did. I imagined us virtually remaining in his study while he was downstairs eating with his guests.

    In retrospect, the fitting thing to do would have been to stop at the end of the host’s hour. But the limitations of thewhole setup were revealed by the end of the second hour. I’d tried to get a woman I knew in Ireland to participate in this all-male conclave, but she couldn’t. I doubt it would have made any difference. Character and dynamics are what they are.

    One of the guys, talking from the west coast of Ireland, said very little the first hour. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I asked whether he was simply contributing through his listening.

    That opened up some discussion about listening, during which there seemed to be some genuine listening, which has no hidden agenda. (It’s interesting how that phrase, ‘hidden agenda,’ has been truncated to ‘having an agenda,’ as if having a clear intent and stated purpose is a bad thing. It’s the ‘hidden agendas’ that undermine dialogue, relationship, and collaboration.)

    People who engage in this kind of dialogue (I’m sure Bohm rolls over in his grave every time it’s referred to as ‘bohmian dialogue’) speak of ‘holding the space,’ which has become a common term in retreat industry circles as well.

    At some point in the second hour of the conversation it became apparent that the Irishman’s listening was of the calculated rather than genuine variety. Dispensing with any pretence of listening, he said, “I don’t know what Harry (the host in England) has told you about me, but…” I tried to bring the conversation back to a shared question, gamely asking, ‘what is the nature of the crisis in consciousness that all people now face?’

    But to these fellows, as to so many others, questioning means admitting ‘I don’t know.’ And that would bring down their whole intellectual infrastructure. So the call to question together, which is as important in Bohm’s dialogue proposals as listening attentively, fell on deaf ears.

    Someone can be quiet in a group that’s attempting to question together because they don’t feel the urge to say anything, and want to understand more deeply what each person is saying. Or they can hang back to find the weaknesses in the members of the group, with the aim of stepping in and becoming the leader. The latter obviously has more to do with power than it does with awakening insight together.

    As the conversation, which never became rancorous or even conflicted, drew to a close, the Irish fellow spoke enigmatically about how a vacuum had opened up. Asked to explain what he meant by vacuum, he said, “I’ll leave you two to reflect on the difference between crisis and vacuum.” Oh?

    Asking questions makes one vulnerable, but that’s the only way to learn and grow. Listening without a hidden agenda, we develop an ear for insight. The ego recedes, becoming a small thing, which it is.

    Finding the right question that resonates with everyone in the group, while allowing open, uncalculated space for listening, awakens shared insight. Isn’t that the way ahead?

    Martin LeFevre

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