Listening takes many forms, but above all it is a skill set that we spend our entire lives ‘developing’, whether we want to or not. Most of us have an inflated notion that we are ‘good’ listeners (if we care about it at all), and defending that fact becomes a regular part of our lives. A great deal of the time, the defense feels naturally conversational and we don’t even recognize that we are doing it. When we take the time to break down the full scope of Listening (the 6th ORM Pillar), we start to see how much more bandwidth is present and available than what we have originally allowed. Take a look at listening from its most elementary difference: active vs passive. Here is where we start to develop a sense of how far the subject matter can reach vs. how much space we give it to exist. We are then able to see Listening as part of our internal structure; an arena that benefits from both our awareness and our intention. This Week of ORM centers around the more spiritual aspects of our human nature, as we listen within ourselves for the answers to our life’s most important questions (active). At the same time, we help prepare inviting space for others to feel the joy of doing the same (passive). If this (or any) practice lines up with our values, we can almost always shine a light on what is passive and with our aligned intention, make it become active.
Active listening involves all of the things that we choose to pay attention to, as well as the things that pull our attention away from our focus, creating distortion around our ability to listen, therefore ‘bothering’ and ‘interrupting’ our otherwise active listening. Which means it has also become the thing(s) where we have now focused our listening attention. Passive listening emcompasses virtually everything else - all of the things that enter our consciousness in peripheral ways. Our own thoughts will fall somewhere in the middle. This allows the opportunity for chaos and confusion to get in the way of us truly hearing each other (or ourselves on occasion) with true continuity. The leap we make between hearing the words another person is saying and interpreting their meaning can make or break our ability to understand what’s being said; especially in the manner it was intended. These are the roots of practically every argument under the sun between people who love/care about each other. Our intentions fail to have a meeting of the minds, and we listen more actively to our rattled feelings. By the time our ‘emotional storm’ has passed and we are able to listen, we’ve often put additional energetic debris in the way of successfully making our point, and we struggle to bring those intentions full circle in the conversation.
Stand in any line, anywhere, with an exhausted couple and you will hear them break down a tired and familiar-patterned conversation where each is trying to assert the words they said and heard. From our own outside vantage point, it’s easy to see where they could shore up the miscommunication and move on to something lighter. Often, we try to help by interjecting our own understanding, or sharing our own humorous frustration with similar situations in hopes of lightening the mood so everyone in the vicinity can breathe more clearly. Occasionally, their harsh words send each of us into our own thoughts as we ‘try not to pay attention’ to what is happening around us, even going as far as thinking it ‘rude’ to be listening to a conversation that has nothing to do with us. We try to turn it into background noise. If we are successful, we can ‘forget’ that it happened and move on with the rest of our day, breathing clearly. If it sticks with us in any way, we may share the experience with others in a way to explain/explore how we thought or felt about it. These thoughts range the entire gamut of positive to negative because we each have a different way of taking in an uncomfortable situation. What may be hilarious to one person is trauma-inducing to another, and none of us resonate with that truth as often as we could. My ORM practice allows me to let that statement be true and still feel confident that I am making a great effort at practicing the art of listening, in my own style.
The background noises that are present in our environment have a lot to do with how we feel in our own skin, and those roots go all the way back to our childhoods. Can you remember what your neighborhood sounded like? When I close my eyes and try to think about that, my thoughts go immediately to three different neighborhoods, and four different seasons of sounds. In a split second, 12 different scenarios of what my neighborhood sounded like presented to my brain for consideration and I was able to very quickly do an assessment. I could boil it down to one sentence or I could write an entire blog about it -- it depends how long I want to spend ‘listening’ from that perspective. Try to stay in that mode of listening from childhood. Take a quick inventory of what your own home sounded like. Were the mornings different from the evenings? Weekend sounds v. workday sounds? What types of sounds came from your kitchen? Did they change over the years as you grew and your family changed? All of these listening experiences are stored in our memories and studying them can help us make sense of some of the things we deal with that don’t appear to have meaning or connection.
Education is another area where our passive listening plays just as important a role as our active listening, but it isn’t qualified/quantified the way our active listening is. Style is a huge factor in teaching and learning. The people who taught us and the manner in which they delivered their lessons played a huge part in how we each received the information presented to us. Imagine if we got to take a test that allowed us to assess the feelings and opinions of the people who taught us, or the influence their methods had on our learning experience? Mentors Week gives us a good opportunity to go back and listen for that stored data about our own knowledge. How we learned things is equally as important as what we learned. We seem to have placed a collective expectation on the ‘right’ way to receive an excellent education, limiting the wide acceptance of other methods. And none of that takes into consideration the things that we each learn outside of our classrooms. The experiences that life has brought before us may not show up on our standardized tests, but I will argue that they play a much more important role in who we are at our core than anything that we learn in a classroom. The teachers who have inspired us? They were able to naturally find or build the bridge between our lives inside and outside of the classroom, while making us feel ‘heard’ about the value of both types of experiences.
My own institutional education is nothing notable or impressive, yet I still feel ego-compelled to mention that my school district ranked really high nationally while I attended school in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These things that we have listened to for so many years, once untangled at their roots, find new space for us to breathe and grow. We are no longer limited by information that doesn’t serve us, personally - or as part of the larger collective. Does that fact affect how I feel about barely attending college? Probably somewhere inside me, that answer is yes. It’s not lost on me that it’s that same school district that had me feeling like a massive failure when I didn’t get into an Ivy League school. To be fair, I had ruined my own chances by the time I was 15, but the shame that surrounded that milestone carried a lot of negative feelings and chatter to the background of my thoughts. In my vocal, active expression, these weren’t goals of mine. I knew myself to be intelligent, but I did not ever give myself the space to be or feel book smart. I categorically refused to do homework, relying on test scores, projects and writing to maintain passing grades. If I’m honest, my goals were more along the lines of entertaining the class than adhering to the intended lesson plan. But as I clear those limiting thoughts, I realize that a passive lesson in my teaching led me to believe that anyone who attended an ivy league school was fully superior to a person who didn’t. From that perspective, only a small percentage of the population could meet the standard of excellence, and as a teenager I truly believed in that evolutionary hierarchy, even though this went against everything that my parents said and believed, as well as the things I learned at church.
No one spoke these words directly to me. There were a lot of people I respected who hadn’t followed that route. Yet my passive listening had picked up that belief -- from the institution ‘responsible’ for my education -- and I was (unknowingly) using it to judge myself harshly! As I write these sentences, I am flooded with many thoughts that limited my ability to feel happy and satisfied as a teen, even though I had more fantastic experiences than I could begin to recall. The negative often weighs more, and I think that is fairly common among teenagers. We have a tendency to work through the ones we can identify as active because they often show up as issues in our adult life. The more quietly held limiting beliefs may go completely unnoticed if we don’t go take an occasional look and listen down the path of previously held knowledge and see if we can broaden our earlier-formed perspectives and beliefs.
In the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, he speaks of the concept of the Uncarved Block. That part of us which begins as whole, open to learning everything, and allowing all it hears, without judgment. As our human listening skills take the reins, our increasing knowledge chisels away at that block, defining who we are and bending our thoughts and beliefs to reflect the ‘reality’ that we have created in favor of the ‘reality’ that we originally heard...that one that we first approached with nothing but natural curiosity.