Attentive Listening

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Examining the index of Creation of a Prosaics, arguably the definitive companion to Bakhtin’s work, reveals authors Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson reference “utterance” some twenty-five times and “dialogue” some fifty-five times, but neither “listen” nor “listening” receives any mention whatsoever. This seems a curious omission given the centrality of listening within dialogue, Bakhtin’s or otherwise. Gemma Corradi Fiumara explores this gap in his important text, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. Here he argues that the Western philosophical tradition of logocentrism privileges “speaking and not listening.” Quoting Heidegger, Fiumara observes that “Logic, as the doctrine of the logos, considers thinking to be the assertion of something about something. According to logic, such speech is the basic characteristic of thinking. A thinking primarily anchored in saying-without-listening.” Arguing by way of Heidegger’s notions of speaking-orientated language (Early Greek Thinking), Fiumara calls for a philosophy of communication that recognizes our “halved logic” by recovering listening as fundamental to genuine dialogue. Art historian Jeroen Boomgaard might well be addressing Fiumara’s approach in his paper “Talk to the Hand: on the Art of Listening in the Time of Talking,” when, as part of his discussion on Claire Bishop’s advocacy of agonistic pluralism , he observes that “If Mouffe’s approach is possible, it can only function when consensus is replaced by discensus, when talking is replaced by listening, because to really disagree with someone, you have to listen very, very carefully.” To this end, Boomgaard identifies listening in the public sphere as a critical first step towards repairing the social bond.

While improving social cohesion is not the primary concern of my research, the discursive and collaborative practices comprising this work are necessarily informed by and respond to what Boomgaard refers to as the culture of “talk to the hand” and Heidegger and Fuimara term a philosophical tradition of “saying-without-listening.” Realizing the significance of this context in tandem with recognizing my own propensity for talking as a form or researcher bias has coalesced into a focal point for subsequent research. This begins with adopting a method for listening that is simultaneously open and active. While focused on the other, this model should also acknowledge the listener as creating understanding through her listening, thereby recognizing listening as embedded in the relational matrix of communication more generally and by extension dialogical epistemology.

Eileen Gamrbill offers such an approach in her Social Work Practice: a critical Thinker’s Guide. Attentive listening is method that presupposes “good listeners are oriented to other people rather than themselves.” While much could and should perhaps be said about the philosophical position underpinning this assumption, my immediate interest lies not in commenting on the ontological foundation of Gambill’s approach. Rather, I aim to outline the skills for enacting this other-orientated listening through practice. These include the following.

Attentive listening involves:

  1. believing that what other people say is important
  2. both mental and physical readiness
  3. waiting for the other to complete her thought before responding
  4. suspending biases, assumptions and judgements
  5. making comments and questions that follow from the statements of others
  6. assuming ignorance, insofar as thinking that we know something can prevent our hearing what is actually said
  7. accurately paraphrasing and reflecting the utterances of others and timing these paraphrases well
  8. paying attention to nonverbal behaviour as an indicator of comfort and interest, and matching verbal and non-verbal behaviours
  9. avoiding reactions that suggest disapproval (unless clearly appropriate), including facial expressions
  10. using postures that convey interest

While many of the skills Gamrbill identifies are common sense, the practice of attentive listening nevertheless requires effort and commitment. Additionally, applying this face-to-face model to online exchange involves adaptation. It is also worth acknowledging that Gamrbill’s model was developed for social work and not for art practice, and that Claire Bishop and others have critiqued some discursive practices on the grounds they operate more as social work than as art. While neither the disciplinary orientation of this skill set nor critique of other-oriented and altruistic art practice preclude adopting attentive listening, it is nevertheless useful to take these issues into consideration as I take up these skills in my research. In addition to practicing attentive listening, future work on this method will involve exploring these skills in conjunction with Fiumara’s philosophy of listening. To this end, I anticipate that the listening aspect of dialogue will open up new and productive avenues for exploration in my research.

Sources forthcoming


Introduction: Some Reflections on Method

Overarching Method: Dialogical Epistemology

Collaboration

Improvisation

Self-observation/Critical Reflection-in-research and Critical Reflection-on-research

Towards a Web 2.0 Sensibility


Methods Archive



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