A friend of mine used to have a philosophy about friendship that I’d like to share. It affected me and and I still lean on it from time to time. He believed that we are each like some kind of “personality structure.” And that when friendship is like a combination of two personality structures that empower and open up one another. Good friends amplify us and open up our strengths, skills, powers, and abilities. Not so good friends dampen, quell, close off, and shrink our “structural” possibilities.
The philosopher Spinoza had a similar argument, published during a famous theological debate on the nature of evil. He claimed that evil was the absence of good — that it does not exist in itself, but is a “corruption” of good forces, and a weakening of the body resulting from forces that contradict us.
This all came to mind recently while reflecting on the discourse of listening that is prominent in social media circles. Brands are learning how to do it; governments are promising to get better at it; companies struggling with the economy are embracing it. Listening is a sign of the times, proof of fallibility and a commitment to humility, honesty, and integrity.
A few thoughts, then, on listening. I like listening. My conversational style changes with the person I’m talking to, and in many ways I adapt more (I think) than many people to situations and encounters. A good friend and I used to say that we could tell when we were in tune. Tune, tone… music makes for a nice example of listening.
Listening creates opportunities. It begins with perception, which moves quickly to recognition. When we listen, we hear what we recognize. What we recognize is something we already know. If we listen only passively, we will hear only ourselves: we will hear what’s familiar. What’s familiar is the same.
If we listen actively, we may discover. Discovery takes work — for it exposes what’s different. What’s different is made available by the other person. The other person’s interest, and its difference from our own interest, creates the difference. And that difference, if heard, and listened to, is the gap of opportunity.
The art of listening is the art of openness. Possibilities emerge out of the opportunities we can create by active and attentive listening because there is an open created where there as once our own sameness and familiarity.
Listening is not only an art of the open, and of being open. It is respectful. To listen is to pay attention, and that attention lights up the other. Listening is a giving attention that begets attention.
Finally, the power of listening is transformational. Our personal power is limited by what we can see, and in how accurately we perceive what we see. Situations, opportunities, problems, relations — we can act only according to what we understand, and understand only by means of how well we perceive. Listening, taking into account another person, their difference and their interests, creates possibilities for action and interaction. But we can move one another only if we are ourselves movable. And a good listener is often moved.