A couple of years ago I did an evening class in counselling skills. As an introductory course it covered the basics with fairly broad strokes and was predominantly concerned with how to listen. The issue of listening seems simple on the surface. It actually doesn’t take too much effort to sit quietly and let the other person talk. It becomes more complex when you consider all the ways in which you might be affecting what the other person says. Good listening isn’t just hearing the words, it is allowing the words to be spoken. Trickier than it might seem.
In her recent book Sane New World, Ruby Wax writes about dealing with depression. She talks about her experiences and thoughts in a way that is self-effacing and remarkably honest. It is lucid and intelligent. She writes, on the subject of being invited to dinner with some former political leaders;
… I’d drink too much to overcome my fear that they’d see I’m an idiot and suss I know nothing. … The evening would end with me drunk, nearly in passing-out state trying to be funny, taking over the room and slurring about how much I loved my dead dog.
It’s such a familiar notion, trying to come across well and ending up seeming like more of a fool than ever. I recently, while trying to act nonchalant and capable, threw my own pen into my face. These things happen when you are feeling flustered, and that flustering is the product of two people interacting. I have never accidentally thrown my own pen in my face while by myself. It’s no ones fault, just the unique soup created when people are around people. It certainly wouldn’t have been Neil Kinnocks fault that Ruby Wax’s intellect and insight would have been suppressed over dinner, but nevertheless what makes her book so fascinating would never have been evident in his company.
Listening, really listening, is hard because we always have something to add. Some thought, some opinion, some objection, some pithy one-liner. These additions can stoke a conversation on, or they can derail it completely. You can change the flow of a whole conversation with one disapproving facial expression, if you’re not careful. The force of one person can remove another entirely. Even accidentally. Trying to impress a person is a fairly sure way of appearing unimpressive.
Reading is the ultimate form of listening. You cannot interject. You can’t derail the text with a smirk or a yawn. You can’t force your opinion in between the lines. All you can do it listen, or walk away. The writer gets to talk uninhibited, free from the worry of whether you are interested. At the point of writing, no one is interested. There is no anxiety that you are wrong or boring or stupid. It’s all between the writer and the keyboard, and so by the time a reader happens upon it, it is unaffected by them.
As a reader, of course, we are free to hold our opinions on what they wrote, we can judge it, dissect it, dismiss it, laugh at it. But our actions by then cannot change it, the way they could if we were there in person. Conversations can be like little games, small battles of one-upmanship. Tactical manoeuvrings, laying traps, trying to win the discussion. Being funniest, coming off as cleverest, knowing the most. I have my faults when it comes to this stuff. I’m pretty sure most of us do. Reading is so much more relaxing than listening. My bullshit won’t be a factor and I will never be able to affect the outcome by failing to smile or cutting in with a sharp joke. And Ruby Wax gets to write with supreme honesty by not having to worry about the people who are reading it, because at the time she sets her words down, there are no readers to worry about.