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The Art of Listening


Social isolation presents many opportunities as well as apparent obstacles. One of the opportunities is to re-learn close human relationships — and one vital factor in those is the art of listening. To illustrate my point, I relate a tale told earlier in this blog:

One evening, many years ago, I was in a room listening to someone describe an event in their lives. This person was a known compulsive talker — someone whose conversation consisted of a continuous one-way flow, into which it was difficult to interject a single word and from which it was very difficult to extricate oneself. One’s normal instinct, upon being ‘trapped’ in a room with such a person, was to find some excuse to escape. But in this particular instance it was just he and me, in a room, with me listening and him talking.

So I decided to listen — I mean, really listen. Not the usual accepted social level of listening, but paying close attention to what was being said, in the same way that one might closely read a text or focus on a piece of music.

The man — a youngish Scottish gentleman — was recollecting a holiday he had been on many years ago in Scotland. Part of the memory was of a time spent near the coast in a small caravan, at night, with a storm outside. As he described the scene in ever-increasing detail, I paid attention rather than drifting off or pondering what I would like to say next (which is the usual pattern for mere ‘social listening’). I was utilising some skills I had learned years before on how to listen — in other words, how to put one’s attention on what the other person was communicating rather than on one’s proposed reply. It’s a fundamentally useful skill, and one which I deeply recommend that everyone learns — but it takes practice, as we tend to naturally lean to our own side of any given conversation and want to develop our own point of view and responses, rather than pay much heed to what another is saying. When one is able to switch this around, and to give one’s full attention to the communications of another, marvellous things can occur.

And they did this evening. As I listened closely, hearing of the conversations between the people inside the caravan, their shifting moods, the sounds that they could hear, the smells of freshly made tea and toast, the patter of rain on the roof, the slight rocking of the caravan as the storm heightened, the whole tableau took full shape in my mind. I heard the rain; I saw the dim light; I felt the caravan walls around me. And then an odd thing started to happen. As the person chuckled about that time, as his own heart warmed to the significance of it, as his nostalgia for it turned into realisations about his life in the present moment, it was as though we had both linked in to some kind of network of importances.

This is difficult to describe — but it was as though we were both sharing the same memory. I was there; I was part of the group inside that caravan long ago; I was almost part of his family, participating in an intimate family experience.

As we ended off the chat and left the room, this ‘sharing’ experience did not leave me: it seemed as though people I met in the corridors and down the stairs were somehow part of the same memory; as we entered a noisier zone, the songs on the radio blended in with this sharing, and the conversations of those around us seemed laden with related significance.

As I say, it’s difficult to describe. In brief, and probably in a way which will make you question its authenticity, it appeared as though the world and everything in it was connected in unforeseen and invisible ways — what someone sang in a song on the radio was intimately connected with a conversation that passers-by were having; a distant laugh had somehow something to do with a comment made on the other side of a room; even the colour of a wall seemed somehow connected to a more general mood or atmosphere. It went even further: a memory that I had was no longer in the past; a moment of the future was no longer still to come — everything was a web connected by relevance rather than some kind of linear cause and effect. The whole thing was tranquil and natural, and, I emphasise, entirely unconnected with drugs, though I have heard that this kind of thing is what people sometimes experience having taken drugs. Life was not what it had appeared to be prior to my conversation about the caravan: it was a much more interesting, interwoven and inter-related thing than I had ever imagined.

The sensation — if that is the right word — slowly faded. Within an hour, things had resumed a more prosaic order and relationship: songs on radios were tiresome rather than loaded with relevance; conversations were mundane instead of being pregnant with meaning. I went about my business in an ordinary fashion. But I retained the sense that I had glimpsed something beyond the ordinary. When the World Wide Web was invented a few years later, I saw in it a kind of metaphor for what I had briefly discerned that evening: the network of rolling, widening, deepening importances and relevancies which perhaps underpins the surface of things upon which we move.

I’ve had many strange and wonderful experiences. This was just one of them. But I thought I would relate it to you because it seems to me that right now, as writers, we have the opportunity to listen to those close to us in new ways. That sense of the interconnectedness of everything is often what we are trying to convey as writers, whether we perhaps consciously realise it or not. Master authors can produce works which we inhabit as fully and completely as I inhabited that wider world that night. And the network of importances vibrates with greater resonance because of the presence of great fiction which permits us all to step outside ordinariness, if only for a moment.

Try listening — really listening — to someone close to you during this time. You might be surprised.

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