The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

The world’s sounds: muezzins, halyards, woodpeckers

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By Caitlin Kelly

Close your eyes.

And just…listen.

Birdsong (which ones?)

Traffic.

Someone’s footsteps (what sort of shoes are they wearing? Are they young or old? Thin or heavy?)

The distant echoing whistle of a passing train.

The hum of the refrigerator.

Your dog’s whimper as he naps.

Your children, laughing (or crying!)

Blessed with sight, we often forget how much we hear, or could hear, in any given moment if we stopped to pay closer attention. If you live in a noisy, crowded city — car horns, engine sounds, cellphones, sirens, the beeping of a truck backing up, bus brakes sighing — it seems counter-intuitive as we we’re always trying to block it out.

But stand somewhere quieter, eyes closed, and you’ll be amazed how many sounds you’ll pick up.

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Some of my favorites include:

Street singers, walking and clapping their hands, in Andalusia

The clanging of metal halyards against metal sailboat masts

A bird in Kenya whose call sounded just like a beeping alarm clock

The muezzin’s chant from a tower in Istanbul

The chatter of coins dropped onto a small china dish, change returned in Paris

The click of my husband’s key in the front door as he returns from  work

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Wind soughing through tall, fragrant pines

The gurgle of a canoe paddle pushing water

The specific thwack of  a well-hit golf ball

The specific clang of a well-hit softball off of a metal bat

A coyote howling beneath our (suburban New York!?) windows

A baby’s giggle

The crunching of car tires on gravel

Tea being poured into a bone china teacup

A woodpecker

Jet engines revving — a trip about to start!

That odd sing-song-y noise before the subway doors close in Paris

I love this recent book idea, a sort of catalog of global sounds:

But you do not need to be an acoustic engineer armed with a stun gun and sophisticated measuring tools to be awed by the singing sands of the Kelso Dunes in the Californian Mojave Desert (caused by an avalanche of very dry sand down a steep slope) or by the cascading roar of the sea inside Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture…

Mr. Cox also plays with, and explains, the acoustics of whispering galleries like that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the one by the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in which sound is guided along the tiled archway.

And I wish I were in England at the end of May for this amazing outdoor concert.

(I added the bold/italics as I think this is so cool!)

Two pioneering composers are turning forest plants and animals of Thetford Forest into virtual conductors this summer, creating ‘Living Symphonies’ where visitors will be able to hear the sounds of the forest in musical form from 24-30 May.

The artists, James Bulley and Daniel Jones, have been working with Forestry Commission ecologists to map the true extent of woodland wildlife and plantlife in one of the East’s most beautiful forests, reacting to all that is alive within a forest. The composers have then created a musical motif for each organism living in the forest, then, with speakers hidden amongst the trees, digital technology generates the full symphony in real time – when an animal moves, so does their music.

If a flock of birds moves across the canopy the visitor may hear a cluster of clarinets move with them. When rain causes some animals to emerge while others hide away; it will also trigger moisture sensors causing their musical counterparts to do the same. The animals and plants become the conductors.

Together they hope to create a remarkable new way for audiences to explore forests with their ears as well as their eyes. As the visitor explores the music they will also become aware of just how complex an eco-system a forest is.

I really like it when songs include sounds — whether the croaking in Frogs’ Lullaby by Canadian band Blue Rodeo or the rattling and squeaking of a carriage ride in Katell Keinig’s Waiting for You to Smile or the match striking at the very end of Shawn Colvin’s murder ballad Sunny Came Home or the whining jet plane sounds at the start of the Beatles’ 1968 classic, Back in the USSR.

What sounds do you love to hear?

Finding Your Voice — The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Cover of "The Writer's Voice"
Cover of The Writer's Voice

Think of your favorite writers, whether of books, blogs, or magazine or newspaper articles.

Chances are you’ve become devoted to them because of their voice, even if you’ll never hear their accent or intonation directly.

Their authorial “voice” is crucial to attracting and retaining an audience.

Are they funny? Angry? Poignant? Sarcastic? How much you enjoy their work, and their choice of voice, depends mightily on this decision.

And maintaining that voice throughout the manuscript is the writer’s job — if the reader has started out expecting opera, they don’t suddenly want hip-hop halfway through!

Choosing which voice to use is just one of many decisions we need to make when we sit down to write — confiding, casual and conversational tones often work best for bloggers, probably less so for a more formal work of history or biography.

Christopher Hitchens. now suffering esophageal cancer, writes eloquently about this in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair:

The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful. This is how philosophy evolved in the symposium, before philosophy was written down. And poetry began with the voice as its only player and the ear as its only recorder. Indeed, I don’t know of any really good writer who was deaf, either.

One of my favorite bloggers also recently addressed the same topic:

That’s what I want to feel as a reader; I want to feel someone there, compelled to tell me a story because they are sure only I can truly understand it. There are four authors whose voices are perfect for me – Colette, Willa Cather, Kafka and Rilke. In each case you can feel the heart beating and the mind thinking behind the voice. The book by Alvarez I’m reading, The Writer’s Voice, is quite interesting and provocative, but it’s also rather jumbled; however, it does make me want to spend more time with those favourite authors and their pitch perfect voices.

The underlying issue for every writer is confidence — that you will find readers, that they will want to read you, that your voice will be heard!

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 years old, so had, even then, a preternatural confidence (perhaps that of the only child, never competing as hard for attention?) that someone might want to hear what I have to say, in the way in which I choose to say it.

Bad editors can silence your voice and wilt your resolve to speak — or have your fictional characters speak — as you wish.

A terrific editor (I had one for “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”) helps you see where you’ve slipped out of character, as it were, or where your narrator’s voice begins to grate.

Whose writer’s voice(s) do you most enjoy and why?