On Listening

I’ve been thinking about the community we create in workshop every week, coming together as strangers meeting for the first time, and undertaking the tasks of listening, of turning a critical eye to the work, of sharing ideas, inspiring each other and creating an environment that is nurturing and intellectually stimulating.  I’ve also been thinking about what it would mean to intentionally bring some of these skills back to the places where we live and work and how they might effectively transform our relationships.

I would like to focus on listening, as listening seems to me an integral part of everything we do in workshop: our writing, our reading, our editing, our ability to give and receive feedback and all the ways we communicate and learn.

Unlike hearing which is passive, listening is purposeful; it is focused. It requires effort, conscious awareness, stillness, mindfulness, and concentration.  When we listen our friends feel as if we care about them. When we listen we are curious and interested and empathic and loving. Listening is a way of being in the world that is sensitive to all aspects of our experience, external, internal and contextual.

When we write we are listening. We often choose a quiet place free from noise and interruptions and close the door. We still the thinking, chattering mind and slowly tune inward. We sit, our bodies like giant ears, waiting for the sound under all things to burp into consciousness.  This kind of full-bodied listening provides spaciousness for the work to show up without pressure, for the work to be.

When we create characters we are listening.  We are putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are embodying them fully, we are attempting to understand what they feel and to say what they know, in this sense, listening involves empathy which involves the heart.

When we are reading a manuscript, we are also listening.  We are leaning into the page and noticing continuity and interruption. We are tracking for content and tone and voice and intent and we are also tuning in to struggle and frustration. We are looking for murmurs and gasps and moans and utterances, and for ahas. We are listening to appreciate and to savor and to bask.  We are listening to laugh, to learn, and to grow even more curious.

When we edit we are reading quietly and out loud and tuning into the things not said, the things hidden, the things silenced. We are noticing chatter and jargon and fluff, and all our darlings, which we must kill.

In workshop though, listening can be more challenging, especially if your manuscript is being critiqued.  Still, we must stay open and curious, we can’t interrupt or shut down the discussion to protect the work, or protect ourselves, even though we feel judged and misunderstood and vulnerable and exposed. How can we listen if we don’t agree, if we are in conflict about the way the material is being handled or with what is being said?  How can we listen without the need to defend? How can we listen when our jaws are tight, our breath is constricted and our heart is breaking? But this is the practice of the workshop.  We must sit in the discomfort if we want to improve and develop as writers. And that is the practice of life when we face difficulty.  Instead of turning away from our differences and our conflicts, what if we turned toward each other instead, and allow ourselves to sit in the hot seat of our discomfort, our uncertainties, our upsetness?

In workshop and in life, when we are in the hot seat, we must first of all, breathe. Yes. Take huge deep relaxing breaths from the bottom of our bellies. We must find ways to calm or regulate the emotions that are roiling inside us.  We must figure out ways to self-sooth as this can melt us back into ourselves. We have to remember our favorite paths for walking and how the grass feels under our toes. Or how it feels when our dogs lick our faces, or the stillness of the afternoon when we are fly-fishing. We have to find ways to calm the flood of anger and humiliation. We have to remember those things our kids say that make us laugh. We may even have to detach a little and remember that even though our classmate is saying this is a bad sentence, she is not saying you are a bad person. She is simply saying the prose is a little flat, you can liven it up by adding more details, changing the rhythm or cutting out the extra adverbs.  In fact we can even ask her to clarify, to be more specific. Even though workshop can feel like the end of the world. It isn’t.  There is always an hour from now. There is always tomorrow.

And so in the real world when we are confronted by our loved ones and co-workers who are saying things that we don’t believe are true, or who hold different political ideas and social values or they are telling us how selfish we are in relationship, how we take and take and give so little back, and each time they open their mouths and say things like – Climate change is fake news, or we need to get rid of abortion rights – you want to give them the finger, walk away, slam the door, hang up the phone.  Because all you can think of are the fires raging through California and the super storms flooding cities all over the country, islands that are disappearing, the million things you do that your girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t give you credit for. And as they are talking and talking all you want is for them to just disappear right in front of your eyes.

But what if you could practice deep listening in this moment?  What if you took as many breaths as you needed until you were calm enough to bring yourself into your heart? What if you turned to them with curiosity instead of walking away? What if with as much patience and compassion for yourself as you could muster, you could say to them, tell me more, please explain? And what if with an open and relaxed face, and an undefended posture, you could extend to this loved one or this stranger who is making you crazy right now, the same kind of empathy you bring to your characters, a willingness to know all sides of their story. What if you listened in this way that says – though my ideas or my needs are important it’s not necessary to bring them up now? What if you could put aside the urge to fix or judge or disagree, and just tune in instead, in this full-bodied way that attempts to acknowledge the value of what’s been said and trusting that whatever they say, it is coming from someplace deep in their experience?

We don’t have to agree with the other person.  We don’t have to believe them. We don’t have to fix anything. In our attentive listening, we are simply saying – I understand what you are saying and how you feel about it; I’m not judging you.  I am simply here fully present to what you are saying and feeling.

On account of what they are saying, we may encounter the unexpected, which might expand our worldview.  Or maybe not.  But your listening gives the other person an opportunity to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel respected and to feel valued.  And when they feel that way, it is often easier for them to listen to you as you voice your own opposing perspectives.

Deep Listening can often lead to right speech and right action. We must listen before we act. We must not slouch in our efforts to fight for climate and food and housing justice. We must not slouch in our efforts to fight for racial and gender and wage justice.  When worshippers at synagogues and black churches and mosques are killed we must act. When lawmakers turn back progress for women and people of color and workers we must act.  And we must also listen. We must find out why they are killing us in our places of workshop?  Why are they killing us in our schools? Why are they poisoning our food and our water?  Why they are taking away our rights? And we must listen below the sound bites and between the lines and under the surfaces and beyond the fluff.  We must listen to their emotions where the truth often lies. We must find out. We must know.  Otherwise we will not be able to solve or heal the problems that ail us.  It is only by listening that we can take the next right step toward our evolution.

Every conflict invites an opportunity for understanding.  But we must be willing to turn toward the other, invite dialogue, stay and stay in the hot seat, with as much self-compassion as we can muster, until it cools, until we cool, because there is immense victory in listening and there is reverence too.

Patricia Powell

Patricia Powell is the author of Me Dying Trial, A Small Gathering of Bones, The Pagoda and The Fullness of Everything. She is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award and a Lila-Wallace Readers Digest Writer’s Award. Powell has taught creative writing at Harvard University, U-Mass, MIT and Mills College. 

Powell teaches Fiction in our low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. 

Contributions by Patricia Powell