C-24. Listening

Reading has difficulties of its own that can make it more than a little challenging, ranging from the nagging problems of definition to the subtlety of primary tells and the perplexities of tertiary tells (C-8) employing special languages (e.g., models, statistics, logic, etc.). But listening can be far more complex than reading. It only seems easier when, in our listening, the complexities are ignored and we settle for the communication obtained. (As though connection and content were the whole story of communication.)

Listening is a diamond in the rough – very rough. Social pressure and psychological heat, so to speak, do beset the listener. But those conditions typically bedevil, not bring about, the potential communicative gem. Even in formal education, from elementary all the way through graduate school, listening as a capability is pretty much taken for granted. Sort of hearing plus. (The capacity of hearing undifferentiated from the capability of listening.) Or, rather obliquely, a variety of “information processing.” Its role in the curriculum is miniscule compared to reading instruction. There is no “L’ in school to accompany the “3 R’s.” (The only “L” there is for learning. The only “Listen” in school is probably a command – or entreaty — to pay attention.)

The difficulties in developing reading capability, apart from capacity handicaps such as dyslexia, stem largely from dealing with a well-established, institutionalized set of practices. Development thereby achieved, then, is much more characteristic of reading than of listening. So much so that interpretations of some auditory capacity’s sounds may be described metaphorically as reading the signs.

The usual distinction between reading and listening focuses on the differences in mode and medium (e.g., written vs. oral). This distinction has become complicated with innovations in media technology. Listening to the oral is different via telephone, broadcast, telecast, et al.. Viewing further complicates matters, mixing listening with reading. It mixes the oral with the written (it had already been mixed compositionally in drama and opera). And now the Internet spawns changes in one or both. Some of these differences come into play in what follows, but the other distinction we would focus on here is the tremendous difference between hearing as a sensory capacity and listening as a much needed behavioral capability. (Improvement of the latter might actually help the former [XI].)

How is one to listen (better)? Can we pose graded problems in listening that will produce better listeners? Can we, perhaps, even design listening games that are rewarded according to competitive (with self or others) achievement?

For that we turn to BFPS. The behavioral differences neglected with respect to developing listening as a multi-faceted capability are many and consequential. It turns out that all six of the BFPS requisites and imperatives have something to say here.

The Control Imperative (VI) comes into play most vividly in listening’s face-to-face circumstance, where it is accompanied by the Balance Requisite’s (XI) dynamic challenge regarding agreement x understanding. With the hard collision potential high, engendered by their facing each other, listening must balance agreeability (re the other) and attempts to understand (what is being talked about and what is being said about it). The problem does not vanish with broadcast media and reading. The source is still a consideration, just not so immediately.

Even the simple one (other) person and one object situation (VI: sitype; see diagram there) poses this challenge. When the number of others increases, so does the pressure to be agreeable. When the number of objects increases understanding tends to become more difficult. Then, to make matters worse, there is the temptation to see the others as objects, dismissing but not obviating the dynamics of the situation – and inviting further dysfunction.

The Control Imperative is also operative, but perhaps not all that well attended to, with regard to the relationship between control need and control capability. The estimation of, and response to, this relationship is a continuing aspect of the behavioral problem, whether engaged in listening or not. But here the need is immediate, and the actor may not even be prepared as to whether to gauge this relationship as mere discrepancy, unbalanced ratio, or measured distance, let alone be prepared to respond appropriately. No surprise then that interpersonal encounters are often plagued by confusion, indecision, escalation of emotions, et. al.

In the listening posture, with content flowing toward one, the Functional Requisite (VII) is very revealing of control capabilities that the listener either lacks or is reluctant to employ. Exposure is no simple option, for example, risking as it does a violation of agreeability and/or a foregoing of understanding. Face-to-face all major communication act and content points (OF, FOR, AT and ABOUT) are presumptively active, and to refuse exposure, to exit in some manner, also denies the presumptive utility of communicated information.

Focal attention is hard to maintain, even if one wants to follow along. Memory, for example, intrudes relations with other objects or persons, and one’s attention may then wander off in that direction, exiting at least temporarily and missing content. Attendant circumstances may also intrude, grossly as noise, or more systematically as with accent, or sometimes because vision picks up movements (triggering the relevance and primacy of collision). Here capacity works against capability. (We have to wonder, too, whether sensory-enhancing substances can also work against the development and exercise of capability.)

Cognition takes time and effort, which the onslaught of oral content may both invite and deny. Do the students listening to a lecture take notes on what is said or on their thoughts – if they have any of the latter. Provision is not often made for listener cognition (other than the speaker’s closing “that’s something to think about”). An interruption face-to-face can be risky and in the case of broadcast was impossible until recent technology afforded the listener that option. (See VIII: non-singularity as discussed below for more on this matter.)

Questioning is closely related to cognition here. Not just because it can be a risky interruption, especially face-to-face with authority figures of all kinds. In all listening, as in all behavior, pointed questions are very much a primary source of productive cognition (X). Skill in questioning is lacking, for want of tools and procedures for making and using pointed questions (C-18). Curiosity is more dulled than sharpened.

Memory is too often understood by us as capacities: visual (e.g., eidetic imagery) and verbal; long term and short term. We need to see it functionally too, as, for instance, when we note that exercised capability, sometimes with certain procedures and tools, can help to increase capacity. In listening we would like to have memory, like questioning, have the opportunity to help fully realize the potential of this communication encounter, to bring as much of the relevant past and relevant future into play as possible. We want memory to contribute the consequentiality implicit in impressions and not just the identification provided by images.

(It may be necessary to restructure oral presentations to enable this and give more provision for cognition to work. But a little more experimenting with communication would be healthy. We seem to have been too enamored of past practices, giving emphasis to learning specific skills at the expense of a more fundamental attack on capability development.)

The Singularity Requisite (VIII) introduces a tension for the listener, whether to hear the speaker through to make sure that the points OF and FOR the message have been obtained, or whether to focus on non-singularities occasioned by points AT and ABOUT within the message that should be heeded and the speaker interrupted. In face-to-face, risk arises with interruption. In listening to broadcast the option may not be available.

(In research on printed messages using the signaled stopping technique, it is not unusual for as many as half the subjects to read through the message without stopping and then go back through to deal with non-singularities, to stop to ask questions, to think, to reread, to agree or disagree [see the agreeability/understanding calculus cited above]. These are the consequent reasons to stop. Non-singularities are the antecedent reasons: uncertainty, ignorance, cybernetic discrepancies and elicited criteria. The first two for lack of a point, the last two for having more than one point. [We would expect listening to exacerbate the tension, and, lacking provision for interim stopping, produce frustration, anger and exit-the-message behaviors – if not worse])

Clarification demands attention to content non-singularities. Message singularity is implicit in attaining justification for the act of communication – this the multi-faceted aspect of the plaint, “What’s the point? There is one isn’t there?”

The Evaluation Imperative (IX) comes into play most forcefully when knowing’s products – especially perhaps the personal forms which constitute much of one’s experience (feelings, but also what one has seen as good or bad, right or wrong) –intrude in one’s listening as elicited criteria. Learned material can also intrude this way, of course. (But will the knowing vs. learning distinction be clear, and their dynamic relationships be respected? How will the speaker react? Knowingly?)

The Construction Imperative (X), to be exercised, must find room to operate within the flow visited upon the listener. Stop to think, to be sure, but in much of listening the price is at least a temporary loss of exposure to content. This may turn out not to be agreeable in the face-to-face encounter. (A judicious nodding of the head may sustain, even encourage, the act aspect however.) When possible in the face-to-face condition we should want to conduct a conversation, where there is an expectation of thoughtful pauses and responses. Failing such a relationship, we can find some time to think by stopping to ask a question, ostensibly for clarification but buying time to think.

In all this it helps to be able to think, beyond mere pondering and decision making, to be schooled and practiced in asking pointed questions, so as to be able to make a constructive contribution. As in literary criticism, where the reader strives to add something on the basis of analysis – not just express a liking or disliking (ala stopping to agree or disagree), the listener needs to develop a constructive capability for minding.

(For example, harkening back to the oral vs. print distinction, and McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message,” we can note that the medium is not, of course, without consequentiality. But it is metaphoric to say that the medium is the message. The medium is not the message, for the medium does not address the points of messages, per se or their particulars [III], in light of the Nature of Things [our incomplete instruction condition] and our ongoing behavioral problem [I:Pbeh], what both reading and listening are seeking of consequence, where the greater and most fundamental consequentiality lies.)

Too busy learning while listening? The Balance Requisite (XI) warns of imbalance between learning and knowing, an imbalance fostered by an untutored posture while listening. So the agreeability x understanding dynamic is not alone in perplexing the listener. Far from it. For these dynamic considerations arise in the selection of what to listen to as well as within the process of listening. Other dynamics also have to be considered, such as problem solving x decision making, citizen x consumer orientation, situational problem x behavior problem and the 3A dynamic of adapt x adopt x adept.

Indeed was there ever a better case for ADEPT than the listening challenge? Listening requires an ADEPT capability far beyond the brute collision awareness of body re body, comprising many more minding and moving capabilities. For confirmation we need only look to the many occasions, as in sports, where quickness of move trumps speed of movement.

What all this comes down to is that listening, were it given adequate development, is so demanding that to have become accomplished at listening would virtually assure a more general behavioral competence.

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter