Listening Further

Exploring Empathy Building Part II

Last week’s article discussed the nature of common context as an element of relating that can help in the process of building empathy. Thinking of our common context can close the space between you and I that would otherwise serve to separate us. I mentioned the ease with which empathy can be built between two people who share common experiences. However, as experiences begin to differ more and more, the ease with which empathy is built can decrease. Common context can serve to bridge that gap and increase the ease.

There is another technique, something we can do, to help increase this ease. We can broaden our vision of the possibilities of life. Each of us has a vision for what life should be. Even deeper, we hold ideas around what life could be. Whether overtly expressed or not, we can hold expectations for the things of life – from the biggest picture of ethics and morality, to the smallest detail of how to hold a fork. These visions and expectations are linked to how we relate with others. We may be surprised by someone achieving something greater than we had ever thought of. We may be distraught by someone suffering more than we had ever thought possible. Learning from others about their experience of life can be an amazing way to broaden our scope of thinking.

A Landscape

A great analogy for our vision of possibilities is that of a landscape. From our individual vantage points of life, we can see an entire landscape of possibilities. However, our personal vision is naturally limited. From where we stand, we are limited in how far we can see. We can only see until the horizon line. Even then, as we try to look further and further away from where we stand, the details we see diminish. Additionally, our vision might be obstructed by obstacles – things that are in our environment that prevent us from seeing past them.

To see further, we must move. We must shift our vantage point. As we walk towards the horizon line, details become clearer, and we may see new things as the horizon line continues to move. Obstacles that previously were obstructing our view are now in new places, and new obstacles may arise. We come to learn that our relationship to the landscape, what we see is malleable. It can change. However, movement may not be available to everyone. Not everyone can simply change their vantage point at a whim. Beyond the initial use of sight, there is another way to enlarge our vision of possibilities.

From Looking to Listening

As a single individual, I will never be able to see or even imagine every possibility of life – the entire landscape of life. There are frankly too many variables and potentials to account for. However, in relationship there is a disposition that I’ve found helpful in covering large areas of the landscape at once. This technique helps me learn a lot at once. It can be overwhelming at times but is equally powerful. I can listen.

Listening for others who are within my site is different than just looking for them. Our ears are quite remarkable in that they can circumvent visual obstacles. We can hear things that come from behind visual obstacles in our landscape. We can even hear something that comes from beyond the horizon line. Whether within our line of site or outside of it, listening is key for the exchange that can come from relating with others.

Many cultures are highly visual. Think about the amount of time we spend in front of screens, books, or simply with our eyes open. By shifting our focus to listening we can interrupt the habits of thought that come from powerful visual impressions. Of course, sounds, tones, and rhythms of speech can all bring up memories, images, and ideas, too. Our senses can be limited or manipulated to a degree. They can also be trained.

Listening Further

As a tap dancer, I am responsible for listening to many things at once, especially when I am playing with live musicians. There are at least three other musicians (pianist, bassist, and drummer), all of whom have different voices, and different responsibilities in the band. In most situations we are all improvising around the form of a song. We all have a basic framework that we are relating to individually (the song), but we are relating to each other as well (ornamenting, interpreting, soloing, and commenting musically), as we play. It was in this context that I was introduced to the idea of directed listening. Take this example:

Play a recording of a song. Identify a particular sound or instrument that you like. Play the recording again while focusing on that sound or instrument. Attempt to bring that sound or instrument to the forefront of your hearing. Try this again and again with other sounds or instruments that you identify.

This ability is real. We can bring forward a sound or instrument that otherwise would be buried in the multitude of surrounding sounds in the song. We can do this in real life, too. In a busy restaurant, we can attempt to focus our hearing in a particular direction, or towards a particular person. We can go in the other direction, too, working to open our ears to hear all the sounds that are happening at once. Fair warning, the act of opening your ears in a busy or loud area can be exceptionally overwhelming. Best to do this with someone who has done it before. Once we recognize that we can focus our hearing, we can begin to play with the skill. We can keep our ears open while highlighting a particular sound.

If you decide to experiment with this, you may come to the following revelation: some sounds have a characteristic of making themselves known as if they were designed to do that. While other sounds tend to work in other ways, more in the background, but no less necessary to the song, or situation. This begins to beg a question of the skill we are developing. How far from the sounds that make themselves known can we hear? How soft or distant of a sound can we bring to the forefront?

When working with large groups of tap dancers, I encourage them to listen for the person dancing who is the farthest away from them. In doing so, they will encounter the sounds of everyone between them and that person. Their ears will have to be open to find that person, and then focused to bring their sounds to the forefront.

The Farthest Voice

This has been mostly analogy, but I hope you are beginning to see the possible connection. We can often find ourselves in a position where those closest to us, think similarly to us. We are at least familiar with their voices and stories. In such a context, to enlarge our field of view, we must listen for voices beyond our field of view, beyond what we are familiar with. What does the voice or story that is furthest from yours sound like? What do the voices between you and that voice sound like? What are their stories?

By listening, we can circumvent some of the challenges that a primarily visual mode of relating can come with. By listening for the farthest voice, we can learn about the kinds of lives that we may never have otherwise encountered. We may be surprised by all the possibilities between where we are and what we’re hearing.

Together with common context, directed listening can bring to light ideas about life that can shape our relationships for the good.


EXTRA NOTE: In writing this article I spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over the difference between farther and further. If you’d like to begin down that rabbit hole, I recommend starting here.