Listen



In a conversation with my friend, Raghu Ananthanaryanan, he mentioned that he listens to others as though his life depends on it. At the time, I thought it was a "catchy" way of saying that listening is important. The more I thought about it, however, the more unique it appeared to be. I thought it might be helpful to explore it a little by comparing it to some of the other types of listening.

These go by many names like deep listening, full listening, critical listening, comprehensive listening, appreciative listening, therapeutic listening, empathic listening, etc. I will expand on a few below but all of them contain bits and pieces of each other. This is not intended as a critical essay on the differences.


The concept of active listening has been around for decades. In simple terms, its focus is on paying attention to the speaker and indicating your attention through head nods, acknowledging-type comments, or questions like, "tell me more." This requires that the listener is processing what the speaker is saying as it is being said.


Consequently, the listener is multitasking: listening as well as thinking about what is being said and then responding in small ways. This is akin to empathic listening where you are trying to understand the emotion that the speaker is experiencing. You show your concern for what the speaker has to say. You demonstrate that you accept what the speaker is saying, which, by the way, does not mean that you agree with what is being said. You listen without interjecting your thoughts until such point as the speaker asks you for it or you ask, "What feedback, if any, would you like from me?"


Appreciative listening, on the other hand, applies to situations where you are listening for enjoyment. It might be something like a song, concert, motivational lecture, or poetic reading. Your emotions might be stimulated or ideas occur to you. Your focus is on your inner experience of how you are feeling or what you are thinking.


The intention of critical listening is analysis. You are listening for the facts, the structure of the argument, support mechanisms, etc. You are not necessary concerned with the speaker's inner experience or, perhaps, even relating to the speaker unless the speaker's emotional state or assumptions about the topic might, however, be an important element for analysis.


Now, back to listening as though my life depends on it (LATMLDOI). A fundamental differentiating feature of LATMLDOI is listening intently while paying attention to what is being evoked within the listener. As with active or deep listening, the listener focuses on what is being said without thinking about what response to make as the speaker is talking. In both, the listener attempts to avoid being distracted by the ideas being stimulated by the speaker.


As the speaker's story unfolds some of its elements may cause the listener to experience various emotional states like anxiety, depression, anger, apathy, etc. The listener may not necessarily be aware that this is happening, especially when it is subtle. The consequences of the listener being in one emotional state or another, and unaware of it, however, can have an effect on both the listener and the speaker. The problem is that neither is aware that the listener's emotional state is in play.


Listening as though my life depends on it, as with other forms of listening, strives to keep the mind clear of distractions stimulated by the speaker's content. The element that really separates the LATMLDOI listener from the other types of listeners is that he or she is actively attending to his or her own inner state while listening. In addition to attending to the emotion expressed by the speaker, you are attending to the emotion arising in you as you listen. You don't really know what is happening in the speaker, but you can get a handle on what is happening inside you. In the end, you will have a much larger picture of the situation.