books · counselling · David Mitchell · listening · Psychoanalysis · reading

On Being a Terrible Listener

Listening is a harder thing to do than it seems. The other day someone I know told me she had seen a movie, asked me if I had seen it (it was Cloud Atlas, and I had, as well as having read the novel it was based on,) and five minutes later I realised I had babbled on about it almost non-stop. Her mentioning it suddenly made me think of all the things I had loved about it, and all the interesting things I had discovered about it after reading the book, and all of that stuff just bubbled up and spilled out. It was like I was finishing a conversation with myself from three years ago. Before I had thought to so much as ask her what she had thought of the movie something had come up and we had to finish talking. I spent the rest of the day hoping for a chance to rekindle the conversation in a way that would let me be the attentive listener I aspire to be. But the chance never presented itself.

It’s frustrating because a few years ago I did a course in counselling that was, in essence, nothing but practicing being an attentive listener. I had the idea during that course that the kind of listening required in counselling was similar to the attention required when reading. You can’t stop your own thoughts from happening, but you have to attend to the text first. One of the really useful things about books is that while you can put them down and stop reading, you can’t interrupt them. You can’t make them say something they weren’t already going to say. This isn’t true of a conversation. You can derail a persons entire train of thought with a single careless gesture. Not every conversation is about honesty or soul-searching. Sometimes people just want to collude and feel like they aren’t alone.

I can be a very enthusiastic person, when I’m on the right subject, and a book that I enjoyed is definitely the right subject, and I think that while enthusiasm is a good quality to have (I will, I think, default to liking an enthusiastic person, at least initially,) it can also steamroll the other person. Conversational dynamics are not like structured debates, where I get to talk about how much I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, followed by the other persons own considered response. I think an average conversation structures itself as one person actively talking and the other actively listening, or two people trying to actively talk until the other surrenders and adopts the listening role. If you ask me about a book or film that I really like, I will probably forget myself and snatch the talking-role all for myself. Let me apologise in advance of this happening again. I’m trying not to do that, but it is not so easy.

I was watching a youtube video of Adam Phillips, a psychotherapist and essayist, the other day (hang on, I’ll find a link… here it is,) and I was so impressed by the way he pauses after each question before answering. Now, in my experience, if you pause even briefly after someone asks you a question there is a good chance that in the span of the pause, no matter how tiny, it will be assumed that you don’t have a good answer. But nonetheless it seems like a good habit to get into. Just slow the tempo down a notch. Sometimes I am good at this (for example anything to do with the day job I tend to err on the side of slowness) but other times, like if you want to know how I felt about Cloud Atlas (I loved Cloud Atlas,) I won’t be quite as controlled.

What I really loved about Cloud Atlas was the way the structure created a kind of inertia within the story. It sounds like a concept novel, six novels arranged like matryoshka dolls, but the sense of movement really worked. It felt like accelerating into something, and then zooming back out of it again, so by the time you get back to the first story so much time and so much space has passed. There is a sense of all these other lives that have yet to be lived. The sense of motion in time was amazing and exhilarating. Every moment of all six stories feels monumentally important, and utterly irrelevant all at the same time.

But listen to me going on about it again. You didn’t even ask.

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