The choice is yours

*Smaller concert w: purple

Much has been written in recent years on the topic of listening. (Not to be confused, of course, with hearing—or the physics of sound waves striking tympanic membranes.) Listening is about the attention we pay to what is going on around us. (In its broadest sense it includes much more, but let's keep it simple for now.) I spent more than a few years studying the subject and teaching the art of listening in business. I was always surprised that few people knew they had a choice about how they listened—or what to listen for.

This is something I learned from listening to live music. In my teens, when I was first playing in rock bands, I made a practice of checking out the other local groups. But I would always listen through a filter of they’re not as good as my band. Or I’m going to discover their flaws. I was listening with an agenda. I had to find evidence for why my band was better. An immature habit, yes—but not unusual for a combative 18-year. (I confess I didn’t shake this habit overnight, as other musicians would often remind me.)

It took me years before I realized that whatever I was listening FOR is what I would discover. (Duh.) If I wanted to like a band (perhaps because they were friends) I would be listening for what was good about them. If so, I would always find positive attributes.

Eventually I realized I had a choice about how to listen to a band. I could listen for what was wrong with them or for what was right about them or for something else. This was an insight that had obvious implications beyond rock & roll!

It all came together one night when I was doing my usual assessment of the latest over-hyped band that was passing through New Haven, Connecticut (my new home at the time). I remember showing up at the local rock club—Toad’s Place—buying a drink, then standing in the far corner in my usual critic’s pose (with beer bottle in hand, jacket collar turned up, and one foot strategically braced against the wall). Without realizing it, I was preparing myself to mentally dismember the band.

Once they started playing they presented me with abundant evidence for why I should. In the case of this band, the whole was less than the sum of the parts, with a collection of technically talented musicians showing off their solo virtuosity to the neglect of whatever song they were playing. The caterwauling lead singer was drowned out by guitars, the drummer was badly overplaying, and the original songs were disjointed, full of musical cliches, and boring. (Other than that—I snarked to the person next to me—they were great.) If that wasn’t annoying enough, the large dance floor in front of the stage was crammed with kids gyrating in Dionysian frenzy to this cacophonous blare. These idiots apparently thought the band was the second coming of Led Zeppelin. Did they have no standards?

When the concert was over and I left the club in the early hours of the morning, I noticed that these same bacchanals who had been uncritically rollicking to the band all night were continuing the party outside, dancing down the street, spontaneously expressing their merriment. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast to my own mood—which had grown increasingly dark over the last few hours. At that point I was forced to confront the question: if these guys were such idiots and I was so savvy, how come they were having a great time and I wasn't?

I saw then and there that I had a choice not only about how to listen to a band but also how to listen to anyone or anything (including the commotion taking place on the street around me). In fact, I had a choice about how to RELATE to anything. I remembered that I had recently heard in a seminar that I could choose how I interpret and react to events. Now I knew what they were talking about. (Ten years later I would be teaching this in business.) I could listen to a band after already deciding I was going to enjoy them and have a good time—or not. I could even party to a band that I recognized had certain limitations (like the Zeppelin wannabes) and not focus on the limitations.

I immediately started applying this to how I listened to the news, a speech, or a friend’s conversation. I realized that, if I chose to, I could listen from the perspective of: There’s value here and I’m going to find it. Or: I’m going to be entertained by this no matter what. Or whatever else I chose.

Though it started with “listening” I could extend it to how I observed or engaged with anything: how I watched a movie, read a book, or took in a sunset. And though I often forget that I have this choice, eventually I am able to remember and recapture it.

To be continued in future posts.

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    1. EXCELLENT point. Yes, it’s a conscious assumption I’m making here. Many neuroscientists, such as Sam Harris, argue that free will is an illusion because there are always unconscious neural events that lead up to our conscious decisions. But I’ve noticed that if I begin with the hypothesis that I have choice (in effect “pretending” I do) and then choose to relate to events in a particular way, I usually have positive experiences from that.

      I sometimes take my beliefs or assumptions for long "test drives" to see where they lead me. If I like their “road feel,” if their “design” makes intuitive sense, if they take me places that are inaccessible in other vehicles, I’m likely to hang onto them for awhile.

      1. If free will doesn't exist, how would that change our perceptions and our reactions to those perceptions?

        Even if free will is illusory, if all of "reality" is illusory, my reality behaves very much like a real reality, and my free will seems to react just like real free will would.

        1. True enough, Joel. But if as a society we no longer believed in free will, it would require us to reevaluate our judgments about the behavior of others. Among other things, we'd need to reinvent our entire penal system. (Also, a lot of moralists would be quickly out of business, adding to the unemployed.) And then there's the churches. They would still have important work to do but with "sin" out of the picture they would need to be "re-purposed."

          1. True enough. What are the chances of society as a whole adopting that view? We live in a society where finding someone to blame is fundamental. "Unavoidable consequence of our makeup" doesn't satisfy most people.

  1. I wonder who you were listening to that night.

    I've listened to a lot of bands quality, sound quality, playing ability, etc.

    One must listen to understand.


    1. Nick, it actually happened many times with many bands at Toad’s before I finally realized one night (or early morning) that my assessment of the bands had more to do with me than the bands.

  2. Great article john, I totally agree that my attitude towards what I am listening to or watching shapes how much I enjoy it. I try to enjoy all music and movies as much as I can. I have a friend I used to watch movies with and I stopped going with him because something always bothered him. He' really critical about movies and music and I can't enjoy it if I'm hearing him complain. Your totally right a lot of musicians are thinking this band is not as good as my band, they want to find fault.
    I'm not saying I like everything, some things do sound very cliched and ordinary. I think you can look at people this way to, try to find good things about them or what they say, their are some people who are really annoying.

    1. You could have been talking about me. I was impossible to be around listening to bands in the old days. But we can retain our critical faculties while still looking for the good stuff. I noticed when I was playing the acoustic circuit in Boston in the 90s that the singer/songwriters were always promoting each others' strengths, and emulating those talents. Even at the open mics — where the critical mind can have a field day, given how raw some of the performers were — people always complimented you for something you were good at. For instance, I became good at tuning up, given how much time I spent at it on stage. :-)

  3. A footnote to the post: in the event of a traumatic event, we may not have a choice in how we relate to it as it's happening. But after the fact we have a choice in how we want to interpret or frame it.

  4. We find what we look for. We hit what we aim at.

    Since I decided about a decade ago to look for happiness, for the good in others, for the quality instead of the dross, I see more and more of it.

    Forcefully struck by the positivity of open mics about 4 years ago when these two kids, early teens, got up at a place where some fairly solid performers had opened the evening. These kids were rough. Stopped and started, nervous as all get out. Their mom, standing near me, mentioned it was the first time they'd every played out and they were terrified.

    When they struggled their awkward way to a rambling conclusion, they got a standing ovation. Not for their skills, but for acting in the face of fear, for bravery.

    And the looks of joy on their faces were priceless.

    I look for the good and the positive, and I actively shun the non-believers. I've endured a whole lotta anger in my life. I don't need any more.

  5. It's all about limiting beliefs.

    As much as we like to kid ourselves we're good listeners, most of us filter any conversation through a bunch of prejudices, inclinations, assumptions, biases, fears, hopes and other limiting beliefs. We end up hearing pretty much what suits us - and occasionally it might even be the point the speaker was trying to get across.

    I think real listening is about having the courage to suspend your ego and thus putting your limiting beliefs to one side in order to really hear what the other person is trying to say.

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