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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Are You Listening?

Listening to nobody

“Narrator: When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just …
Marla: … instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?
Narrator: Yeah. Yeah.”
– Fight Club

The narrator of Fight Club is not dying. But he is in pain. He is looking for somebody who will listen to him. After developing insomnia he is told by a doctor that he isn’t suffering. If he wants to see suffering then he should attend some support groups at his local community centre.

He does exactly that. In fact, he starts to attend all of the support groups. Bowel cancer, brain parasites, melanoma, testicular cancer. Here he finds people who stop and hear him. The insomnia begins to tail off. He’s found his release.

Later, he meets another imposter visiting the same support groups, albeit for different reasons. This knocks the spell of his strange but effective insomnia cure because it exposes his pitiful state.

But how far is the Narrator’s experience from the rest of our lives? We’re all looking to find a way to share our story, connect and be understood. We might not end up crashing support groups for the terminally ill, but we certainly spend plenty of energy trying to get others to see us in the way we want to be seen.

This is the paradox of modern communication: we want to be understood but we invest the minimum amount of time in listening to others.

It’s easier to reply with an emoji rather than words.

It’s easier to text a person than it is to call.

It’s easier to call your friend than to speak to them directly.

How many times have you been on the phone to someone and heard them typing in the background?

Sometimes it seems like people really don’t listen unless you’re dying.

The world is full of people only half listening

Let’s dive into your mind for a moment. While you’re reading this sentence you’re having other thoughts:

‘What’s for lunch?’
‘I should actually get something healthy.’
‘I’m so fat at the moment.’
‘I hate that picture John posted of me.’
‘Ugh. I really need to lose weight.’
‘I should txt John and ask him to take it down.’
‘But what am I going to eat for lunch anyway?’

This happens as we walk around and live our lives all the time. This stream of thoughts that our minds produce is our internal monologue. Many of us don’t even realise we’re having it.

When we talk to other people this internal monologue continues. Other people’s opinions are just topical points for us to judge, filter and toss out as our monologue sees fit. A conversation is often a combination of hearing what someone has said, seeing what the monologue has to say about that and then providing a summary back to the other person.

As a result, most of us are only half listening all the time. We’re wrapped up in our own internal conversation. How do we ever expect to get heard ourselves when we never listen to anyone else?

It’s interesting to note that the main character of Fight Club is so desperate to be heard but spends the whole time speaking at us. He never stops to listen to anyone else because he’s too busy telling his own story. He’s literally referred to as ‘The Narrator’.

Just shut up and listen

There is a pause in the conversation. Mia Wallace sits opposite Vincent Vega at the Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant. She sips a milkshake through a straw. He leans backwards, smokes his cigarette, reaches forward to grab his glass of Vanilla Coke. No words. Mia, mentions the fact she hates uncomfortable silences and then observes:

“That’s when you know you found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share silence.”

Here is the situation as observed so far:

Number one, we only half listen to people. So we’re always waiting for our turn to speak, rather than taking time to really hear.

Number two, that leads us to talk about ourselves more often than we should. It’s easy to relate everything you hear to some reference about yourself.

And finally, number three, despite living in a golden age of communication we are struggling to connect with one another more than ever before.

If we find ourselves in this perpetual state of 140 character attention spans, then what does the opposite end of the spectrum look like?

Mia Wallace, in the scene from Pulp Fiction that I described above, is getting at the answer. What’s rare is what’s valuable. To sit and be silent with another person, not watching TV, not on your computer, just being there, is rare. When we do that we’re giving someone our full attention. And in the communication economy, that’s one of our most valuable assets.

Can you just be with somebody and not have to fill every moment with words? Can you just sit with one another and read each other’s body language?

Can you just shut up and comfortably listen to each other?

Attention is your most valuable asset

Attention is the raw currency of human relationships. In order for any friendship to grow, it must be watered with a certain amount of it. Children need it in order to develop, learn and feel secure.

How we use our attention is nothing short of an indication of what is important in our lives.

When this comes to your relationship with another person, giving all your attention is a powerful thing to do. It shows an investment on your behalf in this person, right here, right now. If you do this often and intensely enough it’s called love.

Love is paying attention to someone else.

I love my friends when I call them and ask them how they are doing.

I love my sister when I hear her problems and become someone she can confide in.

I love my girlfriend when I have long, uninterrupted conversations with her over dinner.

I love my daughter when I spend time simply being with her and giving her exactly what she needs at that moment.

Listening to someone is a way of giving your attention. In this sense, it’s a special thing to do. I can show love to my neighbour by taking the time to stop and listen to them. Listening is a powerful way of building bridges and deepening bonds.

Stop responding, start asking

Many of us want to offer advice or give our perspective. That’s how we define our value in a conversation. But talk, as they say, is cheap. Anyone can half hear a sentence and start talking back.

There is a general rule in the Zen tradition that you don’t offer advice unless someone asks for it three times. We give advice and opinions too quickly. By waiting until we are pressed for them, we’re saved from giving them too soon.

We often want to help fix problems when what we need to do is hear them.

Listening, instead of fixing, requires a conscious effort. But the rules are simple enough. Next time you have a conversation try something like this:

  1. As the person speaks listen for interesting or leading points that they make.
  2. Wait for a natural pause in their train of thought.
  3. At the right moment, ask a question that encourages more than a yes or no response.
  4. Repeat this for the natural duration of the conversation.
  5. Refrain from adding your own perspective or observations at any point.

The interesting thing is how quickly this technique leads to deeper conversations. When we know someone isn’t listening we find it difficult to open up. But when we feel that we’re being heard we’re more likely to trust someone. A good question leads to an authentic answer because there is empathy in the discussion.

You will soon discover that the more you listen, the more you’ll find that’s worth hearing.

Listen More, Love More

Communication, at the best of times, is frustrating. Not being heard is painful. Words are unable to capture the full breadth of any message. Emotions get reduced to concepts. Ideas become fuzzy as we try to clarify them.

We’re bombarded with messages, signals and notifications. All these things are trying to grab some of our mental bandwidth. Pulling us away from what’s happening right now. Attention is a valuable asset, but it’s increasingly scarce in personal interactions.

It’s hard enough to overcome our internal monologue in order to hear somebody else speak. Then we go and slice up our attention by dividing it, multi-tasking with it and spreading it thin via our technology. Finding depth, the kind that makes an interaction really satisfying just doesn’t happen. Not when we stack the odds in favour of single-serving conversations.

But when we have a great conversation, when we listen fully, it can be energising. It’s empowering. We connect. We spread the love. And that’s something the world needs a little more of these days.

A good listener is hard to find. Be one for the people you care about.