I thought I listened pretty well.
I paid attention. I could recognize distracting thoughts and willfully push them into the background. I learned to maintain eye contact, nod, and when appropriate, give verbal indications that I was intent on understanding what was being said. I was even getting better at repeating back what I had heard and asking relevant questions. I practiced presence.
The problem was that I underestimated the power of listening. I thought of listening as a skill and to a degree it is. The ability to listen can be developed. There are people who practice it long enough to achieve what is referred to as mastery or expertise. You may have experienced skilled listening if you’ve ever met with a really good coach or counselor. But, listening has so many dimensions (e.g., physiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc.). I’ve discovered that I need to think of it as more than a skill.
Listening is an art.
You are probably thinking, “Right. Nothing new there. It’s another overused phrase — just like ‘the art of writing’ or the ‘art of conversation’.” Well, maybe. But, what do we mean when we describe something as an art?
This week, I watched a TED Talks video of an extraordinary artist sharing how her initial fascination with shadows ultimately took her art in directions she had not imagined. Her name is Alexa Meade.
As she describes the evolution of her work, she takes what most of us would see as practicing a skill (i.e., painting shadows) and begins to explore it from different perspectives. At each stage of her journey, she starts with her tools, materials and even a defined mental image of where she’s headed, but then she does something different.
She remains open to what is unfolding.
Here’s where I think the distinction between a skill and an art may lie. She’s not just trying to master a skill, she using her skill to explore what can’t yet be seen.
I loved her description of one of her early works in shadow (i.e., painting on her friend Bernie).
“I had a very specific vision of what this would like…but, something kept on flickering before my eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. And then, when I took that moment to take a step back – magic.”
To experience that magic as listeners, we have to be open to what is unfolding.
That means not anticipating what we are going to hear.
That means not hearing only what we know and believe.
That means being fully committed to the process of discovery.
Before, I was seeking mastery of listening as a skill. What I understand now is that I seek mastery in the art of listening.