Toward a New Ethic of Listening…

I knew I needed to up my listening game when my friend Deborah stopped her story mid-sentence, smirked, and said accusingly:

“You’re ‘social working’ me, aren’t you?”

At first, I feigned ignorance and protested. “What?? What?! I’m just listening!”

“No,” she pushed. “You’re doing that ‘listening’ thing that social workers and therapists do, where you cock your head to the side, furrow your brow, and nod while saying, ‘Mmm hmmm. Mmm hmmm. I hear you.’ You’re ‘social working’ me. I appreciate it, but…..”

She was right. I was performing “listening.” While I did, indeed, care very much about what she was saying, because she is my friend and because she was sharing her concern about her friend who was struggling with substance abuse and disappeared for days on end, I was trying to convey (perhaps too earnestly) that I was listening.

In the spirit of disclosure, I am a listener. I get paid for it. I haven’t been a social worker in over 20 years, but I still listen for a living. I am a graphic facilitator, which means that I listen to conversations of teams (like a strategy development group or a senior leadership team of an organization), and I use text, color, and graphics on a big sheet of white poster paper to document their conversation in real time. I receive a fair amount of kudos for the visual representation of the content. Still, I am most gratified when participants come up to me on a break or after the meeting and exclaim, “WOW! You really GOT what we said!” The art work is important, but the art of listening is the much bigger deal.

I have been doing graphic facilitation for 18 years, about three times longer than I was a social worker. While I credit social work for teaching me that listening is important (and how to cock my head to the side and say “mmm hmmmm” with great feeling), graphic facilitation and listening in public have provided me with an invaluable education about how to listen. I listen to the cues people give me when they are about to say something important. I listen to the emotion in their voices. I listen to the changes in cadence. I listen to the pause before the delivery of a main point. I listen for the difference between an assertion and a question. I listen for the color of a comment and magnificence of a metaphor.

…and still…I realize that in my role and responsibility as a public listener, scribe, interpreter, storyteller, and storylistener, but also as a friend, neighbor, partner, son, brother, and colleague, I need to up my game. I am still learning. Beyond the pop-psych version of active listening and “what-I -hear-you-saying-is”, there is more than one way to listen. Beyond the head-cock and the mmm-hmmms, I can do better as a listener. We all can.

Whether it was Deborah’s jocular-but-snarky observation or my own quest for professional development, I embarked on a path of inquiry back in 2015 to find out more about “how we listen.” Surely, in my own network, I could find some wisdom about others’ styles of listening so that I could enhance and refine my own. I developed a spreadsheet of people I knew: therapists, judges, public defenders, 911 dispatchers, marine biologists, sound engineers, musicians, facilitators, futurists, historians, ombudspeople, doctors, healers, CEOs, community organizers, sex workers, and ASL interpreters, to name a few. I wrote them emails and texted them with a few simple questions. How do you listen in your work? Why does it matter? How did you learn to listen that way?

Seventy-five plus interviews later, I have learned more than I ever expected. Of course, the common refrain has often been, “Wow. I never thought about this before,” or “I’m really not a very good listener.” When I probe a little further, push past the resistance and/or humility, and ask the questions again, the bounty of insight has been remarkable.

There’s Sandy*, an ombudsperson for a respectable East Coast university, who listens to dozens of complaints and grievances every month. Sandy’s job is not to advocate nor commiserate, but to help people within the university system to clarify what it is that they want. “My job is to help people IDENTIFY THEIR STORY so that they can tell it more effectively to someone who might be able to help or act.” Sandy says that she takes a lot of notes, recaps, and reframes “so that I can see if I understand”, and she even offers comments like, “I can see how that would be frustrating.” As a listener, though, Sandy’s job is to hold and clarify, not to fix. How many times have we wanted a friend or partner just to listen, not to fix?

Contrast that style of listening with that of Thomas*, a therapist in Southern California. Thomas’ therapeutic practice focuses on people who present with issues of sexual acting-out. When I interviewed Thomas, he laughed when I asked him, “How did you learn to listen?” Said Thomas, “When I was in graduate school and in my supervised practica, my advisors would always tell me, ‘Thomas! You need to just be quiet and listen!’ I always told them, ‘I AM listening! I’m just more vocal about it!’” Thomas explained that, in session, when a client told him a detail that was cryptic or crossways with the client’s stated objectives and goals, he couldn’t help but react: “What?? You were in a motel room with whom?! On the bed? Wait a minute!” For Thomas, the time-honored therapeutic tradition of nodding and saying sagely, “Tell me more,” wasn’t nearly sufficient. He was letting the client know he was listening by emoting and reacting. Listening was an interactive exchange, a give and take, not just a one-way confessional.

“Listening IS the therapy, sometimes,” counters Shannon*, another psychotherapist but from the upper Midwest. For Shannon’s clientele — mostly women recovering from abusive relationships — the listening in the therapeutic relationship might be one of the first, if only, experiences of their lives in which they have been listened to and believed. “Women who have been in abusive and violent relationships have been told repeatedly — by their partners, their families, the police, and the court system — that what they have to say is neither valid nor true. When I listen to them, without judgment or shame, that, in itself, can be transformational. We all want to be listened to. We all want to be heard.” Similar to Sandy, Shannon holds and clarifies, but she also offers a space in which the storyteller becomes the expert on her own story and truth — an empathic listening in which the story is honored, respected, and believed.

“I am NOT a good listener!! Just ask my wife!” protested Larry*, the 911 dispatcher from Massachusetts. I assured Larry that I heard him, and yet, I continued to beg for his participation. “Yes, I understand that you don’t listen to your wife, but how do you listen in your work?” Larry went on to describe his process of listening as an emergency response dispatcher. He let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he was NOT a therapist and did NOT engage in conversation about lingering childhood issues or intrapsychic angst. When he described the questions that he asked — “Where are you? What is going on? Tell me what you see and hear around you. Who is nearby? What is happening right now? Try to stay calm. Tell me again where you are…” — it was clear that Larry WAS engaging in listening. He was trying to figure out how to send help in the most effective and expeditious way possible. There was no need for the kind of therapeutic listening that Thomas and Shannon d0. He needed to do skillful and quick transactional listening so that he could do his job. I complimented him on this, and he was gratified to learn that he was, indeed, a “good listener.” He was so proud of this newfound revelation of listening competence that he proclaimed that he would share this information with his wife at once! Whether or not Larry’s listening would lead to relationship bliss, he was good at his job as a listener. He was a transactional listener. A listener who could get help right away.

Tatiana also thinks about how to listen and offer assistance…as a telephone sex worker. Yes, there are some people who still use the phone. When I asked Tatiana how she listens, she said, “I listen to the kink around what people are saying. I ask them simple questions. ‘What do you do? Where do you go? What do you wear? What do you like?’ The answers they give me tell me a lot. I listen for the kink. The kink is the stuff that they want me to know, even if they’re afraid to say it. The kink is the stuff around what they tell me. What’s often hidden by embarrassment or shame.” How do we listen for “kink”? The stuff around the stuff? The stuff that often goes unspoken and unsaid? How do we listen for that? Often, that is the stuff that really matters. Have we developed that capability — to listen for “the kink” under and around the conversation that we hear?

And so we listen…in different ways, in beautiful ways, in useful ways, in personal ways. I interviewed Frank*, the marine biologist, who has dedicated his life to the systemic listening of monitoring the footfalls of tiny crab and shrimp on the ocean floor to gauge the health of marine ecosystems. I learned from Martin*, the sound engineer, who engages in social listening with groups of people to find out how different people listening to the same piece of music experience and hear the music in unique and disparate ways — all of them important. Both Roger* and Jarred*, the consultant and documentary filmmaker, respectively, spoke with me about the importance of setting the precise mechanics and environment so that one could concentrate on the “real” listening of what people say, absent noise and distraction. For them, the architecture and container of listening is essential. You can’t truly LISTEN if you have a noisy refrigerator humming and whirring in the background or if the tables in the hotel ballroom are situated so far apart that nobody can hear each other. In order to listen, you have to create the environment of listening. Byron*, the emergency-room physician and one-time physician-in-residence at the South Pole exploration station, spoke of collaborative listening. Like Shannon, the empathic therapist, Byron astutely observed: “I had my own hunches about the diagnosis. Still, I wanted to hear what the patient thought and felt. I am not just treating the symptoms. I’m treating a patient. A person. Am I treating the patient — or treating the patient how s/he’d like to be treated? There’s a difference.” With Anita, the artist and historian of trauma and violence, the listening is difficult work…but consummately human: “I listen for the connections, echoes, fragments, nightmares, and shards of memory. History and memory are not neat, but rather, they are ragged and raw and in snippets and little pieces. Cut up and temporary and almost forgotten and ephemeral. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there and they aren’t real. It just means that I need to listen more closely to the stories they contain.” Sometimes, listening is bearing witness to stories that happened outside of our context, our history, our experience, and our consciousness. Sometimes, listening is an excavation in the midst of rubble.

There is more than one way to listen. Can we listen? Should we listen? Of course, yes — and in more arenas than just our work. Listening should be “our work” no matter if we are with colleagues, co-workers, friends, or partners.

I am reminded of one of my interviewees, Gary*, who underscored the urgency of listening by saying: “We are in the midst of a ‘denial of discourse’ attack! We are in an epidemic of NOT LISTENING!” This is a crisis. Without listening, we lose a lot: dialogue, exchange of ideas, democracy, humanity, to name a few. There is much at stake. The good news is that we can listen in different ways. There is no one right way. Let’s listen, or learn to listen, multi-dimensionally. If we had an expanded vocabulary and taxonomy for listening, would we find ourselves in it? If we listened to the listeners in our midst and learned from them, would we be inspired to listen better? If we knew that we could really and truly listen, would we do it? I hope so. Our culture — and perhaps, our world— depends on it.

Anthony Weeks, MSW, MFA, is a public listener, graphic facilitator, illustrator, and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco, CA.

*Some names have been changed to protect confidentiality of the respondents.

Example of real-time graphic facilitation. Ellis Island, NY/NJ. Graphic recording of visitors’ immigration stories. Courtesy of the Immigrant Nation Project. Theo Rigby and Kate McLean, curators.