First Hear and Listen with Intent to Learn and Act
One of the contemplative song writers I have come to appreciate is Christopher Grundy who has a way of creating a mystical calling when you are in search of a meditative mood. His song, Invocation, offers the listener an invitation for emptying one’s thoughts from the morass of media by asking the question: “What can be? What can be?”
In considering that question — What can be? — the answer clearly requires a deliberative stance as we ponder the current environment across the globe which seems to be consistently undermining the possibility of our coming together. Why?
First, rather than engaging in dialogue we are too frequently moving towards our respective corners where we offer simplistic commentary rather than engaged dialogue. Second, we have moved away from a reliance upon facts and instead seem to value opinions. And third, the dismissive manner of communication where sound bites prevail over true dialogue is increasingly the norm. The end result is a lack of communication which permeates all sides of most debates not just here in the United States but across our global society as well.
The world is increasingly filled with lots of talking at and very little talking with. Lots of words splay our conversations with considerable pontificating on all sides of the debates from a host of different perspectives. Hearing is a passive activity comprised of “the faculty of perceiving sounds” and serves as the essential cornerstone for capturing auditory information. Listening on the other hand is more proactive as the ability to “take notice of and act on what someone says” so that we can solidify our foundation of understanding. Or, put another way, while the words are important the insight is essential if we are to move to yet another important state. In fact, the basis of effective communication starts with actually hearing someone utter a thought or perspective and then actually listening to what we hear by synthesizing the shared information.
At the core, we seem to have far less hearing let alone listening in today’s world of pithy 280-character tweets. We select the channels we want to hear, not the channels we should consider hearing or even the channels that offer an entirely different perspective on the world in which we live. Even where dialogue does exist where we move beyond hearing to the inclusion of listening, it is most often asynchronous thereby losing the benefit of exchange the comes from sitting across from someone who is sharing information or offering an alternative opinion.
Without effective conversation, we hollow out the content of exchange and inadvertently impede the consideration of one idea over another for lack of listening carefully to what is being said by only hearing the words we want to hear. What evolves is dialogue derived by placing unilateral barriers and filters on our listening which allows us to hear only the words we want to hear. The ensuing selective hearing and a listening deficit impedes our ability to move a conversation forward. The result is we are then stymied from engaging in meaningful exchange.
But does it need to be this way? As living creatures, we are uniquely endowed with more than a simple reactive capacity to the information given to us. We have the capacity to use our intelligence to not only capture the auditory information others share with us but also the opportunity to decipher the content of the message through effective listening. At the same time, hearing can be augmented by the capture of other messages we detect through the spectrum of our senses. For example, beyond the voices that we hear, we also capture information through sight, taste, feel, and smell. It is the information derived from all the senses as an integrated process that augments hearing with seeing, tasting, feeling and smelling to create better, more effective listening that can then lead to understanding.
The question that naturally percolates to the top is what does the more comprehensive mode of listening accomplish in helping us to move beyond mere hearing to true listening? While hearing is a critical component of exchange with others, it is passive and insufficient. It can be augmented as I mentioned with the other senses. But is that enough? Effective listening requires other additional attributes by engaging in interactive communication as an active, integrative process. The overlay of our intelligence brings to the forefront our ability to not only hear the words but also to comprehend the conversation by allowing us to:
§ think…or, so we think we can think…
These elemental skills are some of the filters we use to engage in effective hearing what the voices around us convey along with the input of vision, taste, feeling and smells which can embellish the information with a flourish. It is this complex nature of our communications when properly used that allows us to move in one direction over another. In fact, it is through the use of these skills that we develop a perspective on the information we are hearing. It is through this process that our interpretation of what is really being said overlays the words with the meaning derived from all our senses which effectively alters our hearing in very subtle but important ways. In essence, the process of information integration allows us to understand more thoroughly through dialogue, debate, and discussion. Hearing can then transform the conversation into effective listening.
The critical question all of us need to consider on all sides of any debate is therefore: Have we used all our senses? Do we consistently consider? Evaluate? Ponder? Think? Calculate? And appraise? These simple acts when combined provide the first essential lesson. To truly begin communicating, we must support active hearing which, in effect, turns the process of passive information collection, or hearing into the active process of effective listening.
But, rather simply delineating a litany of descriptors, the story of “Butch” and the lessons I learned from him can serve as a metaphor for the next essential lesson. Butch was one of the most important influences on my life and, he was also very different than me in many respects:
§ He was short, I was tall.
§ I had long hair typical of the student radical of the late 1960s and early 1970s — even though I was not that radical. He had ruthlessly short hair.
§ He was self-educated and highly learned. I was attending university and was still in the formative process of learning to learn.
§ He lived on the farm he grew up on. My family — on the other hand — had lost our farm to a series of locusts, drought and, finally, a massive hailstorm. Strike three, we were out!
§ Butch was conservative — incredibly conservative and I was — shall I say, more liberal.
§ Finally, Butch was a very successful farmer in a small community a short distance from the university community in North Dakota where I was pursuing my undergraduate degree. And, compared to Butch, I was your typical 60’s “liberal”, who was attending college and aspiring to be somebody… someday… somehow…
His daughter was my best friend’s girlfriend. So, I got to know her and her sisters and brothers, and her Mom, Ellen Ann, and, of course, her dad — Butch quite well. During the summer months rather than returning to my home back in the western part of the state, I took summer courses while holding a job as an orderly and ambulance driver for our local hospital. On the weekends and even during the week, I liked to go to Butch’s place. Why? Because there was always free food — lots of it! — and a swimming pool! For a Midwestern kid, there is nothing like a pool of cool water at the end of a hot day on the prairie. Butch and Ellen Ann treated all of us “hangers on” as part of the family. We were always welcomed with a warm smile, plenty of food and the cool refresh of the swimming pool on those hot summer days.
What I came to learn and appreciate over time was that Butch’s perspective on most of life was totally different than mine. While the differences were obvious on the political spectrum they were just as apparent in our social, religious, philosophical, and cultural viewpoints. But, over time, I came to appreciate Butch’s perspective on life. In some respects, it seemed to me that he held a somewhat “protected” view of the world — not in a pejorative sense — but as a way of framing how he came to his conclusions and viewpoints.
You see, Butch grew up in the same little town in North Dakota where he listened, heard, learned, and interpreted the world based primarily on interaction with the few hundred people he knew that lived in or near his small town. They were mostly like him. They all knew one another. They were connected both culturally and socially as well as through marriage. They had experienced life together — even across the generations. They had grown up together. As a result, they were totally connected both socially, intellectually, and culturally. In some ways, you could characterize them as a modern-day tribe.
I — on the other hand — was an aspiring, young, collegiate type whose roommate was from India and whose suitemates were from Turkey. And, by extension, I tended to hang out with the international students who exposed me to all sorts of languages, cultures and perspectives — some of which I understood and appreciated while there were others that I never fully understood even over time. And — like all young people of that era — I was terribly affected by the Vietnam War, the evolving civil rights movement, the 1968 assassinations and riots, the 1969 Kent State massacres, the first Earth Day, and a whole series of other events that shaped my generation. It seemed at the time like we were experiencing a tragedy or protesting some event every other day — much like the world of today with likely the same impact on a younger generation.
Amidst this background, the most memorable of the experiences I had at Butch’s place were the discussions and debates that always ensued around the kitchen table. It was his favorite gathering place. In particular, Butch loved a good debate. It was an imperative; however, that when you did debate Butch you absolutely needed to be prepared. In fact, Butch was one of the smartest people I ever knew and — as I have already noted — he was not only conservative but really conservative. We would sit for several hours discussing the events and news of the day in the time before 24-hour news coverage by CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and others. In those debates, Butch and I rarely agreed but he listened to me intently and I learned to listen to him.
The important point of my learning from Butch was that he led his arguments with his intelligence. He did not simply throwback pundit comments to my challenges. No! He argued about my logic, my facts, or how I was framing my thoughts. Our debates frequently continued over several visits to the farm where the facts were reviewed, perspectives revised, and opinions altered. And occasionally — just occasionally — I would win the argument of the day. When that occurred after a long back and forth in our debate, Butch would push from the kitchen table, look at me with a twinkle in his eye, smile, and say: “Kevin, you’ve got a good point.” And then…we were off to another topic. But, Butch listened… He digested… He considered… He evaluated… And he even accepted on occasion…
What is the lesson of Butch? It is basically that talking together coupled with a dash of contemplation after hearing and mixed with all the elements of effective listening helps to create an environment or culture of togetherness. We were, in fact, in the world together attempting to learn from one another.
In fact, Butch is never far away when I get into one of those contentious dialogues even today. He taught me the next essential lesson. What is that? It is the fact that hearing and listening are not enough! As we engage in conversation that brings us to the door for creating a culture of togetherness, the two critical steps of hearing and listening emerge as the foundation for the next essential step. By embracing our hearing and listening we are able to learn from the moment.
If we have no “learning” we will have no “finding”. And, if we have no “finding” — we will not get to the final critical step that everyone needs to maintain as their true north if…if…if we are to expect anything from our being together or, action! Action is the capstone which requires us to reach across all backgrounds, all colors, all generations, all sources of information to distill what we have heard by carefully hearing and learning from those exchanges so that we can properly move forward in a meaningful way.
It is through this process of reaching out that the essential steps of hearing and listening congeal through learning. The process and the sequence are important. Because if we don’t move beyond hearing and listening to learning so that we can then engage in action, our society will not see justice, there cannot be peace, no resolution will become evident — all because we are not acting based on what we’ve learned! So, the question remains: What does all this all mean for us…today?
Based on this analysis, it would appear that we are in the midst of a critical Hear-Listen-Learn-Act milieu. It is occurring, in part, because the vast majority of us have been sheltering in place for a relatively long period of time unlike the pre-pandemic times when we were distracted by work and the plethora of ongoing professional or personal events consuming our daily lives. Now, we are witnessing events from around the world with near simultaneity. We are together while we are apart. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is such an event. His death occurred in a near simultaneous mode. Most of us can recount the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that it took when the videos appeared literally moments to minutes following his death. The mis-statements and outright lies that then surrounded his death were witnessed by all of us — repeatedly — as we passively sat and watched the news reports on whatever preferred devices we tend to use. Again, the simultaneity of the experience was profound.
There are other examples over the last period of months that serve as examples emanating from other societies. The protests in Hong Kong or the nightly clanging of pots and pans in Italy during the height of the European pandemic outbreak are just a few examples that have bubbled forth into our living rooms on a real time basis in recent months. It seems at times like there are explosions of emotion and violence happening every hour or so across the entire world. Perspectives held one day are deemed non-operative the next. There is lots of hearing with very little distilling and not much listening and even far less learning — which all lead to inaction!
These challenges have brought a new generation to the streets in an expression of despair. Through it all, the essence of our American culture has bubbled to the top with all its inherent differences. After all, we come from many different cultures, with different ways of thinking, with different life experiences, and different philosophies of life. We are clearly not a cookie-cutter culture. It is these very differences that are indispensable for maintaining the very fabric of our nation — a nation built on the notion of individual as well as collective freedoms. However, without hearing, listening, and learning, we can just as easily devolve into some form of autocracy.
We need to take a lesson from the younger generations that have taken to the streets. They are requiring us to once again remember that we must act and do so together. Across the spectrum of society, we must create a conscious conversation instead of devolving into the separate corners of partisanship which leads to division, separateness, and estrangement. To accomplish that objective, we need to foster an environment of hearing, listening, and learning from one another.
It is comparable to a metaphor of the functioning human body. When all of the parts of the body work together in unison we are at our most efficient state. So, it is for all of us as a communal body. If I use my hand to pick a flower in my garden, I need: my eyes to select the flower at just the right stage of picking, my fingers to gently grasp the stem and hold it while cutting it, my muscles to open the scissors and cut the stem, my ears to hear the birds in the background chirping with their love of the garden; and, my nose to smell the sweetness of the flower. These senses can then stimulate my brain on what it means to cut a rose — but I digress. We need the whole body…not just some of it…
Let us return to the question that George Floyd’s murder highlighted and underlined — the ongoing problem of racism. It is a deeply seismic issue for our society. Racism is a deeply rooted socio-cultural pandemic that continues to infect America with “hot spots” popping up across the nation every day, all the time. And it is not just here in America. It is a problem throughout the whole world. If we are to solve racism along with society’s other major problems, we must:
§ Use our eyes to see how everyone is treated…
§ Touch others who are different than us to realize that the physical difference on the color of our skin is only about 0.1 of a millimeter or, the depth of a sheet of paper. The color of our skin has nothing to do with the content of our bodies…
§ Mobilize our strength for preventing the abuse of others; and,
§ Use our brain to think about all these facts and learn so that we can — together — come up with solutions that help us to support one another.
None of this; however, can be accomplished without first hearing the anguish that racism creates and effectively listening to those individuals so that we can learn. But it is more than simply individual hearing and listening. We need the whole body of the nation to accomplish our collective objective — not just some of us. Everyone must engage in active learning by working together. This is the essential requirement if we are to solve the most pressing problems facing our nation and the societies of the world. Learning is an active state not a passive occurrence. While learning as individuals is important. Learning as a collective creates the power to change by serving as the precursor to “collaboration” with one another. Collaboration is the pinnacle that occurs when hearing and listening are used to develop understanding through learning by all of us so that we can be and act together. This is perhaps the most important point of this entire piece. Read it again!
We must begin to recognize that the peoples of the earth are of one body! But the one body is not just those of us in our local community or nation. No — the one body…is everywhere extending beyond our knowable community to neighboring communities in the regions around us and across our nation to other nations of the world so that we fully recognize that we are the one body, everywhere with everyone!
The recognition of our coming together is the essence of the new digital world in which we now reside with people of all sizes, persuasions, perspectives, and colors. Coming together may sound simple but, in fact, it is quite complex. It includes an understanding and appreciation of those we know and those we do not know, those we like and those we do not particularly admire. It extends from the GI Generation and the Boomers to the Gen X, Gen Z generations and beyond. We are together — black and brown and white and any other color that might occur over time. We are together regardless of our origin — whether it is European, Asian, African, Latino or any other regions here on Mother Earth. Why? Because, in the final analysis, we are all humans together with everyone! So, we need to hear and listen so that we can learn and ultimately act — together.
However — mea culpa, to act is not a simple task or simply the next step in a series of steps. To act requires the integration of the hopes we hold close in our hearts as the foundation of our being as well as the hopes of those around us. It requires a depth of understanding about who, what and how we are as a people. During the recent protests as a result of George Floyd’s tragic death, a sign carried by one of the protesters read: We’ve come so far but we’ve only come so far and we’ve got so much further to go… For those of us who grew up in the pre-Civil Rights era those words are meaningful because we must always, always remember that we have got so much further to go! The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg said it best when she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during her evaluation for a position on the U.S. Supreme Court. She said: “Real change, enduring change happens one step at a time.” To hear, listen, learn, and act are the steppingstones on the path toward realizing the reality of her assessment.
There is one more final thought I would like you to consider. As we begin to focus our abilities for hearing and listening that results in learning and acting, we also need to ask ourselves the question: Where are the most important places for us to start in our hearing-listening-and-learning-that-leads-to-action paradigm?
Is it in solitary or group prayer?
Is it at churches, synagogues or mosques
Is it with friends we know?
Or is it part of community discussion groups?
Is it at protests?
Is it at town hall or someplace else where debates are fostered?
Is it online? With email, tweets or articles we post?
Or is it at the dinner table
Or, perhaps at the communal table?
Prayers of any faith are just the beginning. We need to have the strength to reach out, to listen carefully so that we can hear not just the words but also the pain, the anguish, the exaltations of everyone across every spectrum of society. We need to step forward and make sure that hearing is listened to so that learning through discussions and debates is made possible. It is through our active hearing and effective listening that we will eventually understand and act on the needs of all of humankind in all places. Then, we can go forward with acts of support by coming together.
It is a massive task. It is a task for the new world we live in. We need to embrace the moment by first making an intention to hear and the listen with all our heart and soul so that we can learn and act.