“I do not feel that you know how to learn,” answered the teacher.
“Then can you teach me how to learn?” countered the man.
“Can you learn how to let me teach?” was the reply.
What sometimes keeps us from learning—whether from a sage, from our relationships or co-workers, or from the ups and downs of daily life—is that we don’t know how to let others teach us. We don’t know how to shut off our own mind and hear.
Listening Is One Thing, but Hearing Is Another
True listening is an art—one that involves what renowned physicist David Bohm called the ability to “suspend your assumptions.” Bohm worked in the field on quantum physics and was also a champion of dialogue. For him, dialogue was an application of the key quantum themes of interconnectedness and flow.
Dialogue, in the way Bohm means it, takes place with respect and the suspension of judgment as one listens to others. “Contrast this,” he writes, “with the word ‘discussion’, which has the same root as ‘percussion’ and ‘concussion’. It really means to break things up…. Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points for yourself.”
Think about the difficult conversations you have had with people at work or family members. If we’re honest, how many of those “discussions” feel more like a “concussion” or “percussion”—more like an attempt to break up or smash the other person’s viewpoint with that final coup de grace to guarantee that one point of view is triumphant (think “hammer” more than “ping-pong paddle”).
But winning by putting down or annihilating others’ opinions isn’t constructive when we’re forging ongoing relationships or solving problems in the Middle East, for example, is it?
For Best Results, Check the Hammer at the Door
The trouble in our testy interactions often starts because, as Bohm puts it, we experience our opinions as “the truth.” Yet our opinions are often just assumptions that come from listening to teachers or family members or others we consider influential. And then we become so attached to those opinions that when someone challenges them, we react as if they were challenging (attacking) us. When that happens, we don’t listen; we resist. We shut down and shut out new information that can help all of us see more clearly.
Likewise, when we shut others out by not listening to them, we shut them down and even unintentionally turn them into enemies. “If somebody doesn’t listen to your basic assumptions,” says Bohm, “you feel it as an act of violence, and then you are inclined to be violent yourself.”
What’s even worse, this defensive behavior hurts us. When we have opinions or assumptions we defend, this “interferes with creativity,” says Bohm. “If you are defending an assumption, you are pushing out whatever is new.” That’s what causes our lives to become stagnant, isn’t it?
Looking for more fruitful, creative interaction? Check the ping-pong paddle and hammer at the door. Instead, bring your heart. Dialogue has this key element: we open ourselves up to questioning what Bohm calls our “fundamental assumptions.” We listen instead of trying to defend our own opinions because we admit that we just might have something to learn.
In true dialogue, says Bohm, rather than resisting another viewpoint while we’re hearing it, we create “an empty space where anything may come in” and “where we are not obliged to do anything, nor to come to any conclusions.” We can simply let all the opinions and assumptions surface and suspend our own assumptions for the moment.
What does he mean by “suspend assumptions”? When you become aware of your own and others assumptions, “you don’t believe them, nor do you disbelieve them; you don’t judge them as good or bad.” You simply look at the assumptions. You don’t try to change anybody’s opinion, he says, and you may or may not change yours in the end.
What matters is that the process of openness and sharing has the potential to create change because it changes the playing field. With everything out in the open, there is suddenly a new “shared meaning.”
Shared meaning is what “holds people and societies together,” says Bohm. Out of this new “flow of meaning,” as he puts it, a new understanding can emerge.
Cultivate an Empty Space: Inquiry versus Advocacy
Asking questions instead of pushing our agendas can be healing. I’ll never forget seeing that in action when I was attending a team meeting where I once worked. We were in discussion about combining teams and moving to a new work area and how that would look. People were excited about the new idea with lots of talking going on, except for one person. She just sat silent, her lips pressed tightly together, rigid as a board. Several minutes went by and still no comment from her. I finally turned to her and asked: “How do you feel about this?” Then the truth came spilling out. She had real problems with the issue at hand, and some good points, too, that we had completely overlooked. I don’t even remember what the real issue was now, but I’ll never forget the feeling of having unleashed something important by asking a question instead of pushing an agenda.
I love the idea of inquiry versus advocacy. Listening and observing versus reacting and defending. Leaving the empty space for something new, something unexpected to be born. Not judging, but simply being with what is.
That practice—call it mindfulness, emptiness, dialogue, or something else—is not just the foundation of conflict resolution but the way we open to the unfolding meaning of our own lives. It’s a way to honor ourselves and others.
Part of honoring yourself—your true self—is not being afraid to change your mind because you’ve allowed yourself to hear something new. Betrand Russell, a twentieth-century British philosopher, was once asked if he would be prepared to die for his beliefs. He was wise enough to respond: “Of course not. After all, I may be wrong.”
Honoring yourself and others is recognizing that an open mind and an open heart are your greatest allies. Life is teaching us all the time, but we won’t get the message if we aren’t willing to hear it. We can’t learn from life’s twists and turns and unexpected bumps unless we know how to listen. We can’t give birth to something new unless we clear the space for it to be born.
One more thing…
What about the conversations we often have within ourselves—the internal banter when one part of us argues with another part of us, often over conflicting desires or needs (“I want to do this…” “But wait a minute, you can’t do that—you’ll make a fool of yourself…”) Interestingly, Bohm says: “Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present.” That means you can allow all the different voices inside of you to express how they feel instead of, say, letting the loudest voice (of judgment, worry, or fear) dismissively shut down the creative, experimental, playful part of you. You can make sure all the inner opinions get to surface without squashing some of them before they can even make a peep. That’s helpful when we have a habit of self-criticizing and conforming.
“Love will go away if we can’t communicate and share meaning.”
The next time you need to talk over something difficult with a friend, a partner, or a co-worker, try wielding an open heart instead of a hammer in your interactions:
- Try to set side your own assumptions and opinions. Invite others to share their thoughts and to listen respectfully to yours as well.
- Try to create an empty space so you can really focus while you listen (shut out interruptions, turn off the phone, provide quality time, etc.).
- Try to listen to others without judgment or defending your opinions—and if your mind wanders to how you can counter what you perceive as a “misunderstanding,” try to bring yourself back to the open heart and simply listen.
- Ask questions rather than push your agenda to get at the real issues.
Share your thoughts…
- How have you been changed or transformed by changing the way you listen—by being open to inquiry (asking questions) versus advocacy (promoting your own position)
- Do you have some keys to good listening that have worked for you?
- What will you try doing to foster more constructive conversation?
Quotes taken from The Essential David Bohm, edited by Lee Nichol (Routledge, 2003), chapter 12.