Sometimes listening to people talk reminds me who I am. They talk about their parents, and I think about my parents and how they encouraged me to eat sandwiches crust-first. They talk about that one orgy they had, and that reminds me of that one ten-girl orgy I had in a Las Vegas hot tub. I come out of these conversation with a stronger sense of identity, with a refreshed sense of the stories that have built who I am – a drunken lesbianish, stoic sandwich-eater.
Sometimes watching movies makes me completely forget who I am. For two and a half hours surrounded by booming audio, I’m no longer Aella – I’m the academy award winning actor-character fending for himself in a brutal world with uneasy race relations. I leave the movie a bit dazed, coming back into my life like I’m returning from a dream.
Of course conversations can sometimes make us feel dazed, like movies, and movies can make us feel more strongly in touch with ourselves, but I wanted to highlight that a difference exists at all, and to identify this as a listening spectrum.
On one side is Loud Listening. This is listening we do where we involve ourselves. This is most commonly used when engaged in things like:
Banter and casual conversation: A friend at the dinner table tells their story of nearly hitting a deer on the way over, while listening you are scanning your experiences for deer-hitting stories. When your friend finishes, you start telling your story about the deer.
Emotional advice. You attend a lecture about the warning signs of abusive relationships. With each sign they list, you scan your feelings about your own relationship to see if there is a match.
Similar, personal conversation. You grew up with a crazy hoarder mother and the experience was traumatic and deeply personal to you. On a bus you overhear someone talking about their crazy hoarder mother. You instantly compare what they are saying to your own experience and get off the bus immersed in memories of your childhood.
Silent listening, by contrast, occurs when we ‘lose ourselves’ in what we are listening to; when we assume the identity of someone else. This mainly occurs in things like:
Movie watching. You forget your real life worries while caught up in the dramas of other characters.
Dissimilar, personal conversation. You meet someone who escaped from North Korea. They tell you about the censorship, terrible food, and the concentration camps. There is so much novel information you don’t think about yourself at all.
Learning to model. Your friend comes to you asking for advice with a complicated family issue. Before saying anything you ask questions to try to imagine how they feel and what their goals are, so that you can give them personalized advice that would make them happy.
Loud Listening is a function that identifies how the speaker’s ideas and experiences are different from the listener’s. This gives the listener the ability to evaluate their social status, how well society understands the listener, and how strange/normal the listener is, and so that the listener can take action to bridge that gap.
In banter, it’s identifying shared experiences and speaking them aloud. In emotional advice, it’s identifying society’s ideas about health and modifying our behavior to fit. In personal sharing, it’s a heightened sensitivity to how much people actually understand the vulnerable things we’ve gone through, in the hopes that one day we can figure out how to communicate it. Sometimes Loud Listening can be defensive, where thinking about ourselves screams out empathy we don’t want to feel, or insists we are someone who understands something we actually don’t.
In some circumstances we prefer situations where everyone is loud listening. Improv, dinner parties, teasing in first dates – we expect to be loud listened to, and we loud listen in turn, because we both actively want people to hear our involvement and we actively want to hear others’ involvement.
But the more vulnerable we become, the less useful it is to have someone else involved. When we want to be deeply understood, we want it to be through our lens, not someone else’s.
When someone tells us something deeply personal and vulnerable, the function in our mind that says how does this relate to me? shuts down our ability to empathize. When we’re loud listening to the person on the bus talk about their hoarder mother, we are imagining the situation from our perspective, with our set of emotions, and thinking things like “their experience wasn’t as bad as mine. I would have been grateful to have a mother who only saved her poop jars once a week instead of every day!”
I particularly struggle with this when listening to people talk about religious, homeschooled, or oppressive childhoods. If someone tells me about how they were homeschooled (but only up until high school!) and their church tried to guilt them (they weren’t devout enough to guilt themselves!), my brain screams at me how much worse I had it, and how I would have loved to have their childhood.
But this isn’t fair to their view at all, and when I Loud Listen I’m not empathizing with the actual experience of being a child who only knows that things could be better and now they’re worse. That experience is real and formative to them, my own life be damned. All they wanted was for me to feel what they felt.
This is where Silent Listening becomes a loving thing to practice. My feelings about their childhood come out of Loud Listening. To immerse myself in their feelings about their childhood is Silent Listening, and I think ultimately it’s all anybody ever wants in response to vulnerability.
Silent Listening is easy sometimes, when our own identities don’t spring up in the way. It’s easy for a population of suburban families to Silent Listen to a movie about aliens, because it’s not a common experience – but it’s harder for this population of suburban families to Silent Listen to each other, because everyone’s daily dramas is common and close.
Feeling common and close to someone means that probably many people feel similarly, and thus few people Silent Listen to that person. Thus the more isolated that person will feel in their vulnerability, and the more isolated they feel, the more valuable it will be to them for you to hear them. Generally speaking, the more difficult it is to Silent Listen, the more important it is for you to do so. (It’s very easy to Silent Listen to the defector from North Korea, which means they’re probably used to everybody doing it, and thus it’s less valuable to them.)
So if someone is being vulnerable, Silent Listen to them. Let’s be honest with ourselves about what sort of listening we’re doing, because slipping into Loud Listening when we think we’re Silent Listening dupes us into a false sense of understanding. Let’s not view either type of Listening as negative, but rather conduct them intentionally, so that we’re not lying to ourselves about how well we understand someone.
Let’s find the joy in trying to understand, instead of trying to be understood.