Listening Past the Noise

by Lynne M. Baab

(Published in the Otago Daily Times, August 9, 2014)

I have a new colleague in my department, and we're having our first one-on-one conversation. I ask him the normal questions: Where are you from? Where did you study? Tell me about your family. What are your interests?

I'm carefully watching my inner thoughts and feelings as he talks. I'm watching for a moment of tension or discomfort.

Maybe he'll tell me he's a bit of a political activist and I'll find out his political convictions are quite different from mine. Maybe he'll tell me he practices a religion other than mine.

And if either of these happen, I'll wonder if I'm conveying that I approve of his beliefs and convictions because I'm trying to listen well. That would make me tense. And I'll probably feel uneasy wondering how to respond to his expression of values different from my own.

Watching for that inner tension as I listen is a new practice for me. It comes out of research I conducted a couple of years ago. I interviewed 63 people about the role of listening in congregations, and I tacked on a question about obstacles to listening at the end of the interviews.

To my surprise, most of my interviewees were the most passionate as they described obstacles when listening.

Some of those obstacles come from outside us, such as noisy rooms, a soft-spoken conversation partner or someone who talks really fast. But many more obstacles come from within.

Quite a few of my interviewees used the term ''inner noise'' to describe the emotions and thoughts that make us want to stop listening, perhaps by changing the subject or getting up to do something.

I've already described two kinds of inner noise: wondering if by listening to someone I disagree with, I'm giving tacit approval to their point of view, and worrying I won't know how to respond appropriately.

My interviewees also talked about other forms of inner noise, including the tyranny of the ''to-do'' list floating around in our mind and a feeling of time pressure that makes it hard to be present with people we're talking to.

After I heard so many of my interviewees talk about obstacles to listening, I sought out a friend, Jayme Koerselman, who teaches counselling at Laidlaw College in Auckland.

I told Jayme about all these obstacles and asked his advice. He noted that one of the major tasks for first-year counselling students is to learn how to cope with inner noise. He said he encouraged his students to imagine a car park.

When an uncomfortable thought or feeling arises in a conversation, he suggested using our imagination to park that thought or feeling over at the edge of the car park.

Sometimes simply acknowledging the inner noise and parking it is enough for it to go away.

Sometimes that thought or feeling is still nagging us at the end of the conversation and we need to get it out of the car park and ponder why we felt that way. Either way, parking it for the duration of the conversation helps us to focus on the person in front of us.

Parking inner noise and trying to stay focused on our conversation partner will help us avoid the common ways people shut down conversations when feeling uncomfortable. Communication scholars have documented numerous ways of avoiding listening.

Have you ever been at a family gathering when the conversation gets a bit intense? Someone jumps up and says, ''Let's get those dishes done!'' Leaping into action is a common response when a conversation provokes discomfort.

My pet peeve is when people continually turn the conversation back to themselves: ''That reminds me of what happened to me when ...''

When dealing with inner noise, it's often easier to tell a story about ourselves rather than listen. Other common strategies for coping with uncomfortable emotions or thoughts when listening include denying there's a problem, changing the subject, or asking a barrage of questions.

When I'm honest I have to admit I have a favourite strategy for avoiding listening: giving advice. I catch myself doing it all too often.

These days, we rub elbows more frequently with people who have different beliefs, convictions and values than ours. Our workplaces and neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly multicultural, and our colleagues and neighbours may come from a different country, ethnic group or religious tradition than we do.

Our family members and friends are increasingly likely to find partners from widely diverse backgrounds. In the years to come, we will more often engage in conversations with people whose opinions trigger uncomfortable feelings and thoughts in us.

Coping with the inner noise that will be increasingly common in a multicultural world requires conscious strategies.

Here's one more: ''There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.''

These words come from four communication scholars writing in an Australian communication textbook, and they capture one of the major challenges for us today.

What does it look like to differentiate between understanding and agreeing with someone? What does it look like to keep an open mind and a positive attitude towards the motivation behind what we hear in conversations?

We can do neither of those tasks if we engage in knee-jerk conversation-stopping every time we experience any uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. The first step is to practice parking that inner noise aside so we can focus on responding wisely in conversations. Every single listener experiences inner noise.

Until we learn to deal with it, we won't move beyond conversations that jump from one topic to the next in response to discomfort. We won't get beyond endless and detailed stories - or a barrage of advice - as a way to avoid the discomfort of honest conversation. We won't grow into the kind of deep relationships that nurture us, body and soul.

After learning how to park inner noise, we then need to learn to ask the kinds of questions that get to the motivations behind people's values and beliefs.

''Tell me about where that conviction came from.''

''I'd love to hear the story that lies behind that decision.''

When we engage in that kind of conversation, we build bridges with people who are different than we are without conveying we agree with them. These days, we need a lot of bridges.

Watch for the ways you feel loved in conversations. Watch for the way people in your life ‘neighbour’ you as they listen to you. Then go and do likewise. You’ll learn so much from people who are different than you are, and you’ll enter into Jesus’ love for you and for the people around you.

Resources on listening:

My book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry

Blog posts on listening

More articles on listening:

Spiritual practice: Growing in loving conversation
To be a neighbor must include listening

Letting go of agendas so we can listening to God and others 

To acess my other books, look here.