Authentic Listening

Authentic Listening

Professor Renee Guarriello Heath, Ph.D.
Department of Communication at the University of
New Hampshire and the Co-Director and
Co-Founder of the Civil Discourse Lab. USA

As we consider one another’s needs trailing in the wake of the global pandemic, I do not need to remind the readers of this newsletter why authentic listening is particularly important right now. In my own sphere, I know my students are suffering – a number of them, who disclosed that they were experiencing anxiety, is markedly up. My husband, an airline pilot, has watched the effects on his industry. “Before the pandemic, there were between 100 to 150 reports of unruly passengers in a typical year on US airlines. In 2021, there were nearly 6,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, with some 72% related to mask disputes.” It should be noted that these incidences varied by culture, with no increases reported in Asian countries. Yet, in many places, it seems we have lost some of our coping and conflict management skills. And my three children seem to be re-learning to navigate in a social world again. A focus on authentic listening has the potential to foster the grace we
may need as we reenter social spaces.

As a professor of communication for nearly 20 years, I have spent countless hours teaching listening in the classroom. I have arrived at three assumptions that frame my teaching and ultimately lead to a focus on authentic listening; 1) Most people are trained to listen for debate— that is to win not to understand; 2) Those that have had listening skills training often miss the point—to under- stand someone, we must listen with authenticity, not as a rote skill; and finally, 3) to listen well, we need to change our listening filter.

1).Most people are trained to listen in the context of debate. I keep this in mind when I begin my lessons. When I ask students how many of them have been trained in dialogic listening (listening to understand), very few raise their hands. But debate is another story. By the time US college students have finished high school, they are likely to have participated in several formal educational debates that demand reasoned arguments. Listening in these situations is functional. You listen to undermine your opponent’s argument. You listen so that you can tailor your arguments to persuade your audience. The idea of listening for understanding, rather than agreement, is typically foreign. Thus, I begin teaching by remembering that listening to understand is a new skill, not one US culture has taught well, nor valued to the same extent we value reasoned debate.

2).Listening skills training often misses the point. I will never forget a conversation I had with a colleague when I was a fairly new director of development in a skilled nursing center. I expressed my concern about a new employee initiative. I cannot recall a word of the substance of that conversation. What I do recall were the many techniques my colleague employed in our conversation. She looked at me intently in the eye – so intently that I felt oddly uncomfortable. Her gaze felt unnatural. I recall her saying more than once, “So what I hear you saying is….” She nodded so frequently I was distracted by it. As a graduate with two communication degrees at that time in my life, I was certain she had just finished an active listening course. I recognized the technique. The problem is listening cannot be deduced to technique. Surely it is helpful to consider our gaze and body language when listening. And it is wise to cue others that we are hearing them—sometimes by repeating words they have used. But listening without authenticity will leave those interacting with you feeling they have not been heard at all. Rather than focus on technique, I suggest we focus on the goal of listening—that is to understand. When the goal is in the forefront, rather than the technique, then the technique will feel more authentic.

3).We need to change our listening filter to accomplish authentic listening. What exactly does this mean? To explain I turn to the philosophy of dialogue as developed by Martin Buber:
The experiencing of the other side is essential to the distinction Buber makes between “dialogue,” in which I open myself to the otherness of the person I meet, and “monologue,” in which even when I converse with her at length, I allow her to exist only as a content of my experience. (p. 3). Emphasis added.
Buber points out that often we listen solely with our own filters—I allow her to exist only as a content of my experience. Yet, we are not able to fully understand the other if we insist on interpreting their story through our own filter of experiences. The implications for listening are thus: we must try and understand someone not through our own eyes, but through their eyes. We are often taught this as perspective taking or empathy.

What might this mean for listening authentically in the midst of a Global Pandemic? In the US, and elsewhere, political wars erupted over policies compelling citizens to wear a mask. Taking this point of contention as an exemplar, we can imagine the difficulty in trying to understand the other, with whom you disagree. If you believed it was important that all citizens wore masks during the peak of the pandemic, you may have filtered this opinion through the content of your own experiences. Perhaps you knew someone who suffered or died from the virus. It would be very hard to bracket this filter when engaging with someone who feels differently. But to engage in dialogic listening requires just that. In this case, we do not listen to win the argument, or to persuade the other to wear or not wear masks. We listen to understand their position through their experience. We suspend our own, overpowering filter, by listening to how the other has experienced the pandemic. We allow their filter to frame the experience, so that what comes into view is how they understand the policy of masking.

Of course, understanding is not agreeing. But it is a step toward compassion and empathy. Listening for under- standing is an authentic practice that can leave us less polarized at a time when we are craving connection.

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