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.