Conversation Requires Listening

How often do you have a real conversation? By real conversation I mean one that goes beyond the exchange of pleasantries and opinions. In a real conversation both participants venture into uncharted territory. You say things you never said before and have thoughts you never thought before. In a real conversation you have to listen to what the other is saying. Each person needs to feel seen and heard. Sometimes you’re moved to see things in a new light. A real conversation expands you, deepens you, makes you feel more alive, more fully human.

Right now there’s a great deal of talk in the world and very little real conversation. The 2016 election season and its aftermath often feels more like an assault — a war of words rather than a national conversation about the kind of world we want to live in. There is much heat, but very little light.

The word listen comes from the Old English hlysnan, and means, “to pay attention to.” To listen is to be attentive, concentrate, keep one’s ears open, prick up one’s ears in order to hear and comprehend. Listening is a conscious act, an intention. If we don’t listen, how can we hear? Too often, I think, conversation consists of two monologues taking turns, or, as we witnessed in the presidential debates, talking over each other.

Technology gives the illusion of connection, but connection is not conversation. MIT’s Sherry Turkle, in her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes, “Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt … I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation.”

Conversation requires listening, and that’s a skill in short supply these days. How do we break out of the echo chambers most of us spend so much of our time in, our circle of like-minded “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat? How do we learn to listen? Turkle’s surprising answer is that listening requires solitude.

She writes, “People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, … if we don’t have experience with solitude — and this is often the case today — we start to equate loneliness and solitude … If we don’t know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.”

We experience the rewards of solitude when we avoid reaching for another shot of digital stimulation every time things get quiet, when life slows down. Practicing meditation is a start. So is creating a work of art. Cooking. Cleaning. Quietly doing something for someone else. Anything that reduces the external distractions can encourage you to listen to your own thoughts.

In his famous speech “Adventure,” the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen declared, “Deliverance will come not from the rushing, noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places … from the wilderness. …True wisdom is found far from men, out in the great solitude … .”

When I’m alone in some wild place, and when I really listen, sometimes the place itself seems to talk back. This experience has changed me, made me feel more connected to and a part of the world, made me feel that I belong.  And it’s given me a greater sense of urgency about the global climate crises. It has also made me a better listener.

In her classic essay “Tell Me More,” my step-grandmother, the author Brenda Ueland, wrote, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force … When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand …[a] creative fountain inside us begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom … This little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination — whatever you want to call it.”

During the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, the sun appears to pause. Perhaps we should too — pause, be quiet, savor the solitude. Out of this silence, if we give each other the gift of listening with an open heart, we may have some real conversations that begin to heal our divided world.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. He is writing a memoir, to be published by Random House.

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