Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rhetorical listening

I've been thinking a little bit lately about the idea of listening, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm not very good at it. (Truth be told, I can think of only a handful of people who truly are good at listening). Most of us listen, I think, because we value the person who's speaking to us, or because we are waiting for our turn to speak (and since we require an audience for our thoughts, we play audience to others). I wonder how often we really listen--that is, listen without thinking at all about what we might say in response to what is being said, but just listen.

Two weeks ago I went to the Segullah writer's retreat, and in the opening session, storyteller Steffani Raff ran us through some exercises to help us tap our own storytelling potential. Among other things, she had us practice listening. For five minutes, we had to just listen to our partner. Although we could nod and murmur encouraging responses, we couldn't say anything. This was surprisingly hard--it helped me realize just how much we are programmed to respond. It was also amazing to see what kinds of things speakers could come up with when they were listened to openly, without any kind of judgment, and without interruption. This exercise made me realize, among other things, that I could do a much better job of listening to those people closest to me--my husband, and especially my kids. (How often do we listen to our kids with half an ear, while our hands and part of our attention are elsewhere?)

Rhetorical scholar Krista Ratcliffe calls this kind of focused listening "rhetorical listening," which she defines as "a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture." (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that while I've read one of her articles about rhetorical listening, I haven't yet read her book-length study). I really like this idea, that listening can be rhetorical, that listening can be just as purposeful and audience-driven as our speaking and writing.

I think this kind of openness to others encourages better observation as well--focusing on listening better helps us really see others, not just the part of others that impinges most strongly on ourselves. As the quote that inspired this blog suggests, we all of us are born into a kind of extreme self-centeredness; I think one of the real signs of moral development is to begin to see outside of that self-centered fog, and listening well can help us get there.

Obviously, I'm not quite there yet. I still don't always listen as well as I should in the cases that matter the most (prayer would be an obvious example--I can pray well, eloquently even, but without real listening on my part those words don't do me much good).

What then, are some ways that we can listen better? How do we go about increasing our capacity for observation? More importantly, our capacity for generous observation? (I think it's easy to observe critically--but to observe and to listen with a kind of openness that reserves judgment is much harder). If anyone has this figured out, I wish they'd let me know!


  1. Hey there R! I've been enjoying your blog for the past few months. This may be an overly simple reply, but I find it helpful to ask myself, while someone is speaking (especially when they're saying something I disagree with) why they're saying what they're saying. Obviously this only works with people I know well. For example, when a friend of mine tells me that she sees as healthy one partner in a relationship doing much of the giving while the other does much of the receiving, I ask myself why and then remember that her parents' marriage is set up along those lines. So it's easier to reply in kindness to her, even though I'd disagree about the basic health of a relationship set up that way.

  2. Steve--thanks for your comment! I agree knowing people better often makes it easier for us to be generous. And I'm flattered that you've been reading my blog--it's not always as cogent as yours is, but it's a nice space to think away from my kids . . .