Listening, Part 1
Have you ever had an epiphany?
And did you notice, when maybe you tried to share your epiphany with a friend, that it didn’t sound very impressive? We recently had that experience at the lab during our workshop on listening, where we came to understand that the best way to listen is to, you know, try. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but I might guess that’s because any road to anywhere is paved with them. Intention gets us places.
Admittedly, intention is a little tricky, because you have to care, at least a little. And it can be hard to care when everything is so urgent, it seems impossible to take a moment to stop and quiet ourselves. Oddly, that is exactly we were intending to practice. So we stopped and quieted ourselves in order to learn to stop and quiet ourselves.
On a Thursday afternoon in January, we created a cozy living room with 60 of our closest friends for the first session of Moonshot U, an inspiration initiative for skill-sharing and exploration at Barkley. This quarter’s theme is “Band Camp,” so each session uses music as an entry point to the learning. For our listening class, this was a very simple connection to make.
We discussed and practiced 3 types of listening:
Affective listening: How does it feel?
This is the most common kind of listening, and no one needs to be trained to do it. It is done by simply receiving the sound and noticing how it feels.
Affective listening paints a picture in broad strokes, so that one has a sense for the feeling of a piece — its spirit, one might say. Some might describe this kind of listening “letting it wash over you.” But it is also possible to let it move through you. In other words, this kind of listening is simple, but not necessarily shallow. (See: epiphanies.) Deep feeling, simple content. So the question arises: when you listen affectively, what is it that determines how much or how accurately you feel? Most would point the finger at the quality of the music, but we aimed, instead, to look inward. To find a way to be more receptive.
Affective listening is what most of us do effortlessly and unconsciously all the time. It is the reason we can get very excited by certain speakers, even if we don’t understand what they are saying. (The 2016 election comes to mind.) Have you ever had an argument with someone, only to discover that you were arguing the same point? A person’s tone can communicate disagreement even if their words do not. This is why affective listening is not enough to create understanding. The good news is, affective listening can create empathy. If we are open to feeling what another person is expressing, we can have a powerful experience of empathy, and that can be valuable all by itself.
Structural listening: What is it made of?
This type approaches a musical example almost like a map, in which you identify particular moments, and how they relate and function in the piece. In short, structural listening often means finding the parts of a piece, the way you might find the beginning, middle and end of a story.
Our project manager, Laura, is great at structural listening in meetings. Like any great project manager, Laura listens for what kinds of things are being said. During most of our recent project meetings, Cady is DJing backup tracks to her ideas, I’m making puns with Jim, and Laura the Structural Listener is alert to catch any possible reference to timeline interruptions, client expectations, or technical hangups, because she’s cataloging the types of information she’s hearing, and doing the work of walking through their implications. (And we love her for it.)
Dialogic listening: What does it mean?
This type of listening is perhaps the most complex and difficult, but it is also the most rewarding, and the kind most of us need to practice. As the name implies, this type of listening places a musical example in dialogue with external elements — generic conventions, other musical pieces, artwork, texts, historical contexts, social norms, etc. This is where we combine our qualitative, subjective experience with our structural analysis and place it in context. If we are very knowledgeable, we can do this live as we listen, but in most cases we need to do some research before and after we listen in order to understand. During the workshop, we took a Jimmie Rodgers song from 1931 and listened to it all three ways, digging into the history and culture on the Dialogic listen. It was a hoot.
“You say I only hear what I want to” — Lisa Loeb
In everyday life, dialogic listening is directed by all the ways that we have learned to filter our attention. Much of this happens automatically, and our job as listeners is to do it intentionally. Considering all that one can take in — the sound, the meaning, the context, the culture, history, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations — it would be impossible to receive it all. Which is why it is ultra important to consciously choose what we intend to receive and receive it well. So yeah, Lisa, you only hear what you want to. But if you want to hear something amazing, chances are good that you will.