Listening differently sounds strange to us. Most of us probably already know what it means to listen. You don’t talk, rather you take in what the other person is saying… but is that all you do? Actually, even when you’re not speaking, you are communicating all sorts of things – by your facial expressions, when you cough, lose your attention, and probably a myriad of other reactions. So I would add that listening differently really means listening with intention… the intention of curiosity and wonder.
Let me go back a few steps. When we engage in conversation we already have opinions, biases, and judgments. This is not a bad thing, it just is. We cant help it, we’ve been in this world for a while, and had many conversations, formed ideas, and thoughts about many things. we may try to hide it from the person we’re listening to but in some ways these biases may come out.
This is where we can learn something from anthropology: listening from a position of not knowing. Anthropologists learn to put aside their ideas, thoughts, biases, and judgement (or at least bracket them) when they are trying to understand someone. They presume an attitude of not understanding the culture, the ideals, the history, and they work really hard to listen for clues that will let them inside someone else’s world (even if only briefly).
Here’s an example: Mary and John have been having a conversion and John feels a connection. After a while, he says to Mary, “I’m so depressed I just want to die.” Mary listens knowingly and nods. John then asks Mary if she’s ever felt this way, and she nods again. John says “So what did you do?” Mary says she just rode it out and eventually felt better, which is a subtle way of saying to John that he should “just ride it out.”
What if Mary instead said to John, “I know what it was like for me to feel depressed John, but I really don’t know what it means for you. Can you tell me what it’s like for you?” This would give John the opportunity to open up and go into more detail rather than Marry assuming she knows what John’s talking about.
Listening differently may take some practice, but at the end of the day, may also lead to deeper, more meaningful relationships.