In her book, Listening with the Whole Body, Sheila Frick asserts that listening is active, voluntary, dynamic and continually adapting.
Hearing and eyesight are passive; listening skills and vision are active. They require the brain to act upon, perceive, interpret and store information. They are cognitive functions that distinguish human beings.
Although I have lectured and written widely about vision, I have only recently become interested in the dynamics of listening. I am fortunate, however, to have had key professionals in the field of listening share their perspective.
I am indebted to Valerie DeJean at the Spectrum Center as well as Sabra Gelfond Ingall and Sally Brockett for introducing us to Dr. Stephen Edelson, President of the Society for Auditory Integration (SAIT).
It all starts with vibration. The ear of the unborn child responds to heartbeat, respiration, and visceral noises, and most importantly to the mother’s voice. These reactions are crucial to mother-child bonding, and to later development of speech and language. A two month old embryo has everything necessary for full vestibular function. By five months after conception, the fetus can actually process sound, which stimulates muscle tone, balance and equilibrium.
Children with auditory problems, exacerbated by chronic ear infections, need remediation listening to music and participating in auditory therapies can be life-changing.
Listening requires a model
Rhythms and intonations in the womb lay the foundation for listening. A child speaks the “mother tongue” by retaining the ability to hear and form sounds he/she hears, and dropping out those that are missing. Later listening depends not only on the energizing effect of touch, movement and sound, but on modeling, as well.
Maybe many children today are poor listeners because we are “double-tasking” adults, who lack an “in box” for their queries. Children perceive us as not listening and then model that behavior.
Listening and vision are a team
Since sound does not arrive at the two ears simultaneously, the time interval difference contributes to our perception about spatial relationships. Gradually, appreciation of visual and auditory space coincides.
Good listeners can relate vivid images in their mind’s eye… a Technicolor movie for many. Poor listeners have blank screens. Expert listeners communicate involvement with the speaker through gesture, facial expression and affect, as well as voice.
Listening without vision is challenging
Visuals are absent on the telephone, so the listener must depend on voice, intonation and cadence to enhance understanding. Have you ever tried having a phone conversation with someone who is emptying the dishwasher, answering e-mail, or playing a computer game? These distractions interfere with good listening, which requires quiet both internally and externally.
Listening is a gift
The effort and attention we give to enhancing our listening is an invaluable gift to ourselves and our children. Carla Hannaford in Awakening the Child Heart points out that the literal translation of the Chinese symbol for listening is “use the heart to listen.”
Kay Lindahl’s beautiful book, illustrated by Amy Schnapper, details many aspects of listening. Founder of The Listening Center in California, she provides the following guidelines:
- Listen without judgment. The purpose of dialogue is to understand, not judge right or wrong, good or bad. When you judge, you are conversing with yourself, not another.
- Listen for understanding. You don’t have to agree or believe… just understand.
- Ask clarifying questions. These assist understanding.
- Suspend assumptions. You know you are making an assumption if you are annoyed or upset. Let it be. Resume trying to understand.
- Make “I” statements. Speak for yourself, not “everyone.” Take ownership of what you say.
- Suspend status. All are equal in the dialogue process: no seniority or hierarchy.
- Honor confidentiality. Create a safe space for self-expression.
- Speak one at a time. When two people are talking at once, neither is listening.
- Respect silence. Take time to reflect on what you heard and how you want to respond.
Listening takes practice
Practice being present in every conversation.
See these books for activities and ideas on enhancing listening skills.
- Listening with the Whole Body, Sheila Frick
- How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence, G.N. Getman
- When Listening Comes Alive, Paul Madoule
Contact Vital Links, for workshops incorporating therapeutic listening (www.vitalllinks.net or 608-270-5424)