Listening: What’s the Point?
When I first joined The Colossian Forum, I encountered the notion that conversation is a good thing, something to be sought and nurtured. But why exactly is conversation good?
I let this question simmer on the backburner for a while, taking as a provisional answer that conversation is good because I always have something to learn from others. This is undoubtedly true. I have limited vision; my perspective is distorted; my tiny breadth of experience can’t begin to touch the limitless expanse of reality. By talking with others—even others who have their own limitations and distortions—I can compensate to some degree for my own limitations, because others have insights where I have blind spots. We complement one another.
Surely this is true. There is no one from whom I cannot learn.
But somehow this rings a little hollow. Isn’t it rather ego-centric? Are the words of others only of value insofar as they help me? Are other people only tools for my own self-improvement?
Back in 2010, I attended a lecture by William Tecumseh Fitch on the development of language. The lecture did not focus on the history of the variety of languages, where they came from, why they differ, and so on. Rather, he spoke about the question of language itself. What is it about humans that makes us talkers? Fitch examined the physical requirements of speech, accompanied by entertaining references to talking parrots and Hoover the seal, who spoke with a heavy New England accent. Fitch talked about the necessary grey matter for forming words—and, on the other side, for hearing and understanding the words of others. There is also a necessary depth of social interconnections for the development of shared language. In none of this do humans stick out as uniquely suited for developing language. So what is it about humans that makes us so peculiarly talkative?
Fitch pointed to one peculiar trait of humans, which he could only express in German: Mitteilungsbedürfnis. We have a driving need, deep within our being, as irresistible to us as our basic bodily requirements, to express ourselves. We are driven to pour ourselves out to others in words.
I remember when our eldest daughter was a year and a half old. She had a remarkable capacity for baby signing. I must admit this whole thing was uncanny for me: the very idea that children have things to say before their mouths and tongues can form the words! When our daughter had a vocabulary of some 20 words or so, she would pore over a picture book, searching with focused passion, scrutinizing each page. She was looking for something, anything, that she could say with one of her signs. Finally she’d find it: an apple, a dog, water, or a baby, and she’d look up at us, make the appropriate sign and say, “Dah!” What a smile and gleam in her eye! She had a driving urge to connect with us and the combination of a “word” and a picture did the job. She was thrilled by the confirmation that she had communicated something from her mind to ours. Mitteilungsbedürfnis. The need to say something that is understood by another.
So maybe there’s a value to listening that has nothing to do with learning something. Maybe it is good to listen simply because people need to talk.
We all need to connect with other human beings. We need to know, even if only for brief moments, that our being is aligned with another’s. There are things deep within us, not necessarily profound in and of themselves, that we need other people to truly hear.
I wonder if this has something to do with the mystery of prayer. After all, why would God listen to us if he already knows what we want, what we’re going to say before we say it (cf. Psalm 139:4)? Maybe the invitation to prayer is God giving us permission to speak with the promise that he will listen. Even if he already knows, we still need to say it.
The work of The Colossian Forum centers on developing our capacity to discuss difficult things. I’m finding it is much easier for most people to talk than to listen. Talking comes pretty naturally and maybe it is as necessary for us as breathing. But what’s the point of talking if nobody is really listening?
If we’re willing to listen to others we might very well learn something, maybe some very profound somethings. But even if we don’t, I think it might be worthwhile to listen nonetheless. We love strangers because they are people like us, people who need to be heard.