Works In Progress

The Question of Listening

Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening.
New York: The Guilford Press, 1995.

Jacob Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.

Smokey Wilson, “What About Rose?”:
Using Teacher Research to Reverse School Failure.

New York: Teachers College Press, 2007.

When a mother restrains, just for a moment, her habitual reactions and allows her estranged daughter to speak without interruption, it may be a moment of healing. The three books reviewed here—two by teachers and one by a psychologist—explore what makes possible such a moment of real listening.

In The Lost Art of Listening, Michael Nichols, a psychotherapist, points out that human beings have a built-in need to be listened to.”The need to be known, to have our experience understood and accepted by someone who really listens, is meat and drink to the human heart. . .” However, there seems no corresponding built-in need to listen. “Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire and judgment—and, for a few moments at least, existing for the other person.” In other words, it is a gift, or even a sacrifice—an acquired taste.

As one reads how Nichols’s therapy patients describe the “unbearable” behavior of people close to them, one experiences once again the difficulty of hearing the most significant people in one’s life, and Nichols reminds us that to acknowledge and listen to another’s point of view is not the same thing as to agree with it. His clients cannot always make this distinction, and.he writes of failures as well as successes in his attempts to help them learn the art of listening.

He recognizes his own difficulties: “When I complain to my friends about my wife nagging me to take out the garbage, it’s just because my wife doesn’t understand why I don’t always feel like doing it. Besides, if I tried to discuss this directly with her, we might get into tedious and unnecessary issues, like fairness and inequality and so on.”

Is it really possible to pay the price—to become aware of, and sacrifice, the assumptions, judgments, and reactions that stand in the way of listening? One sees how one barely waits for the other person to stop talking in order to inject one’s own opinion. Nichols points out that even an automatic expression of empathy—“I see, I understand”—can be a sign of inauthentic listening. Then, too, in our culture young people often leave home in late adolescence and stay away for a long time, leaving family frictions lingering unresolved in what Nichols calls “subparts” of themselves. These unresolved feelings can later rise up to block listening to anything a family member says.

And yet, he writes, “most people won’t really listen or pay attention to your point of view until they become convinced that you’ve heard and appreciated theirs.”

This very point is close to the heart of the matter for Jacob Needleman in his book Why Can’t We Be Good?. In his university philosophy classes Needleman sets up ground rules for two people to debate such currently heated issues as partial birth abortion. After one person has stated his side of the issue, the other person must restate what he has just heard, to the first person’s complete satisfaction. Only then may he make his own argument. In the debate he describes in his book, as two students struggle repeatedly to listen to and accurately report each other’s arguments, a transformation takes place: a strange tenderness and respect arises between them. For the sake of listening, they have sacrificed for a moment their own claims and arguments, and a new feeling appears.

Like Nichols, Needleman makes the point that listening implies observing, separating from, and sacrificing for the moment the parts of ourselves that judge, desire, condemn, remember selectively, or only pretend to listen. In a sense, the difficult people in our lives make this moment of sacrifice possible, calling forth for our inspection our personal obstacles to listening.

Certainly, in the ordinary psychological sense, we need better listening skills in order to live more harmoniously with our families and neighbors. But for Needleman the importance of listening goes deeper. In Why Can’t We Be Good? he says that the reward of the sacrifice we make in order to listen is to realize that our one great responsibility and need is to become more attentive to ourselves and to other human beings. The wish to be good can even be thought of as the wish to listen. We can’t be good, he writes, because all the unobserved mental and emotional “bric-a-brac” inside us, the things we listen to automatically, derail our wish to listen sensitively to our own deeper needs and those of our neighbor, and then to act in accordance with what we hear. To Needleman the innermost Self is an attentive listener, capable of receiving all the frequencies, to the very highest, of messages from the universe. The future of the human race, he says, depends not on technological manipulation but on seeing what in ourselves prevents listening to—and then caring for and serving—the Self, the inner listener that unites us all.

In What About Rose? Smokey Wilson asks about the moments when language and cultural differences make listening and understanding problematic. What if you don’t even have a clue that there’s a disconnect? She describes her thirty years of work with adult African-American students at a community college in Oakland, California, where it was her job to bring them to the first rung of achievement in reading and writing at the college level. These inner-city students, who often had records of failure in school, spoke an African-American vernacular English with its own set of linguistic principles. Many had little conceptual grasp of the kind of writing she had been hired to teach them—to write a focused piece with a beginning, middle, and end. Academic researchers at the time she began her career offered little help; they viewed these students from afar and did little more than apply labels that marked them as inadequate.

But Wilson was personally drawn to her students; she found them to be likable, intelligent, idiosyncratic human beings, and she became determined to find a way to teach them the added skills they needed to better themselves. Thus she began a long, persistent search.

Wilson soon found that the mere wish to listen to her students was not enough, that it was necessary to suffer the fact that she often misunderstood what they were trying to tell her. When she missed their cues, students withdrew into one- or two-syllable responses and even disappeared from the classroom. In the book a breakthrough comes as one student, Anthony, painstakingly re-visits the place in his narrative where he knows she doesn’t get it:

“The most damaging misunderstanding was my failure to understand the one word on which the point of his story depended: “crep,” (or “crept” in Standard English). Only through his repeated gestures did I finally understand: His friend “stole” his money. When I finally understood him, a qualitative change in his talk appeared.” At that point his story came “pouring out.”

Wilson came to view the kind of learning that helped her students as an interactive process. Early in her work she discovered in the writings of L. S. Vygotsky, a Russian educational theorist, the concept of “the zone of proximal development,” an idea that nurtured her throughout her teaching career. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is the space where the “next step” of learning can take place. It is a social space inhabited by both student and teacher. For Wilson, it was a zone of increasingly skillful guided conversation between teacher and student, where the teacher’s questions led the student toward a focused piece of writing, and gave him or her the structure or “scaffolding” to ask his own questions in later attempts. For both teacher and student, it was where the kind of listening that could accept and acknowledge misunderstandings counted for a great deal.

Wilson writes, “If I had to choose which feature will do the most toward inviting the student into the student-teacher conversation, I would choose in-the-moment conversational repairs. A corrected misunderstanding is the first step a teacher can take to move past a formal and institutionalized relationship with those who most need simply to be heard.”

As time went on, Wilson found that the university was paying better attention to learners like the ones she taught, and the writing of educators at the university level now helped her formulate her own questions for research—for example, “How does interaction between student and teacher influence the writing process and the grade?” Eventually she was able to show that with interactive methods good writing became better, and failing writing moved into the passing range at statistically significant levels. She herself began writing about and publishing her classroom research, reasoning that if teachers like her brought research from their classrooms to the attention of theorists in the university, the theorists in turn would be supported toward giving more practical assistance. They needed to listen to each other.

As these books point out, listening is reciprocal, a fluctuating exchange between levels of understanding. Wilson was nourished by her contacts with guides at the university, and these exchanges helped her as she worked in the “proximal zone” with her students, where she herself served as guide. Nichols was able to help his psychotherapy clients when he observed his own difficulties in listening and understood what he was asking them to sacrifice. Needleman seems intimately to inhabit the zone where his students can find guidance; one gets the feeling that in his classroom he’s offering every day a kind of simple, objective listening, where ideas can just be piled on the table and received without judgment. An atmosphere like that allows and encourages the experiments in listening he describes. Needleman also brings in a sense of levels beyond levels of receptivity, extending the idea of listening almost to infinity.

As these books intimate, to enter the precincts of genuine listening requires a rare and necessary payment of self-examination and restraint. In that moment, a welcoming silence can appear, a quality of listening that partakes of the same substance as love.



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© 2004 Far West Editions