forgotten art of listening

The forgotten art of listening – how to uncover hidden layers

Hearing is a physical process that allows us to perceive sounds. As a process, it is quite passive. We do not really need to do anything in order to hear. On the other hand, listening is the active process of giving meaning to what we hear by engaging with most of our senses. It is about going behind the sounds and words, finding the deeper concepts and meaning, and connecting with other people. Yet we spent most of our time chatting with others without really listening to them. The proliferation of smart devices and messaging apps but also the rise of individualism have transformed listening into a forgotten art.

The forgotten art of listening

From ancient times, humans have always been moved by rhythm. Author Daniel Levitin mentions in “This is Your Brain on Music” that the music of our distant ancestors was heavily rhythmic. According to him, syncopation is a very important concept that relates to expectation, and ultimately to the emotional impact of a song. Whenever a note anticipates a beat – that is, when a musician plays a note a bit earlier than the strict beat would call for – this is called syncopation. The syncopation catches us by surprise and adds excitement. Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.

Afro-Cuban music has complex syncopated rhythm. This means that there are multiple intertwined rhythmical patterns which create a rich palette of rhythms and beats. For those not familiar with Cuban music, these patterns are difficult to distinguish and follow.

Despite the complexity and seeming “chaos” of the interlocking rhythms, everything is organised around a rhythmic key, called the Clave. This’ invisible’ rhythmic key, played often with two wooden sticks, allows the rhythmic organisation of multiple beats. This is similar to how jazz improvisations happens around basic scales. Although the clave is one of the most important rhythms in modern music, it often goes unnoticed.

Having spent most of my life listening to modern monorhythmic music has hindered my ability to listen to deeper, more complex patterns.

Discovering a hidden world of rhythms

When I first started dancing Cuban Salsa it was almost impossible for me to follow what was going on with the rhythm. I would start dancing and almost immediately be out of rhythm. I couldn’t follow or separate the various rhythmic patterns and even worse I couldn’t lead my partners. Everything was a big blend for me, almost like a confusing noise was attacking my senses. It became obvious that I had to rediscover the forgotten art of listening.

I went to rhythmical workshops where I learned how to separate the different rhythmical patterns. It was difficult but I didn’t give up. I continued listening to all styles of Cuban music, trying to listen more intently and deeply to the syncopated rhythms. It took me some time but eventually my brain adjusted and a whole new world opened up for me. For the first time I could listen to both the independent rhythmic patterns and their integration into a greater whole.

I am wondering, how many things go completely unnoticed just because we are not paying enough attention? The world around us comprises of so many intertwined layers. Yet we miss so much of it as we are either too distracted with our own thoughts or not aware that there is something more out there. As a result, we tend to reduce what we listen to what is easily understandable. It is a reductionist process that makes us blind to a richer reality. Personally, only when I became conscious of the existence of multiple rhythms did I start paying attention to the complex rhythmical landscape of Cuban music. This made me feel more complete and fulfilled, as if I had discovered a new super power, the forgotten art of listening.

Three levels of listening

Prominent coaches and authors, Henry and Karen Kimsey-House, have created the Co-Active Coaching model, a transformative communication process. They mention that there are three levels of listening.

Level 1 Listening

This is also called Internal Listening. At this stage we are more focused on our opinions, judgments and thoughts and trying to connect what we hear from the listener to our experiences or needs. This is when we are just chatting with someone.

Level 2 Listening

This is also called Focused Listening. At this stage when we talk with someone we completely focus on the speaker. As listeners we can filter out our internal chatter and other distractions, focusing not only on what is being said but also on how it is said (tone of voice, pace, mood). We can reflect on the words of the speaker and paraphrase what we have heard. This is the level of listening that professional coaches use in their communication.

Level 3 Listening

This is also called Global Listening. At this stage we are not only tuned in to the speaker but also fully aware of the wider environment. We use all our senses, including our intuition, to notice the speaker’s non-verbal communication, body language, energy and wider context. We connect so much with the speaker that we lose sense of time and find ourselves in a flow.

Dancing in the moment

One of the cornerstones of the co-active coaching model is ‘Dance in the Moment‘.

Coaches are dancing in the moment when they are being completely present with the client, holding their client’s agenda, accessing their (the coach’s) intuition, and letting the client lead them. When coaches dance in the moment, they are open to any steps the client takes and are willing to go in the client’s direction and flow.

From Chandler Coaches

A professional coach needs to listen intently at all levels, not only to what is being said but also to what is not being said (tone, mood, non-verbal cues). In my post on “How to dance with strangers” I describe how nonverbal communication is a much richer and universal form of communication than verbal and can act as a catalyst in establishing quickly better and more meaningful communication with others.

Listening intently means to be very present to what is happening right now and respond in the moment. The coach’s response cannot come from a script, it needs to be improvised based on the input from the environment. The coach and the coachee need to be dancing in the moment.

How the forgotten art of listening helps us to improvise and be creative

Improvisation comes from Latin and literally means “not seen ahead of time”. In the role of improvisation in life and dance I wrote that improvisation in dancing is the ability to think on our feet, be aware of the space around us, and be able to act and react in the moment. This requires us to really listen to the complex rhythmic patterns of the music but also reading and responding to the non-verbal cues of our partners. It is a complicated cognitive process that leaves no room for distracting thoughts, almost like a form of meditation.

Similar to dancing Cuban Salsa, coaching is a collaborative act where the lead (coach) and the follower (coachee) move the dance (dialogue) forward. Sometimes the coach leads the dialogue sometimes it is the coachee leading. There is an ongoing dance and interplay between two equal partners, who continuously adapt to each other. Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin. Leading and following is a dialogue between two intelligent individuals, who are both in tune with each other. It is not a monologue where one talks and the other is passively listening. When we are not really listening to someone, our response is based on the ideas and preconceptions rather that what is really being said.

Once we rediscover the forgotten art of listening we will be able to connect on a deeper human level and act in the moment. Improvisation can lead to novel ideas and solutions that could never have been “seen ahead of time”.

We can only be effective coaches when we become effective dancers, able to actively listen and respond to the complex syncopated rhythms around us.

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