The Art of Listening, Part 3

In The Art of Listening, Part 1, we talked about listening as a contact sport. And in Part 2, we talked about listening as a two-way street, focusing on the responsibility of the person speaking to also be intensely curious about and connected to the person you’re speaking to, “listening to the listener” to read their signals that let you know if you’re connecting. In Part 3, we focus on an even deeper connection we call “listening with your Third Ear.”

You’ve heard of the “Third Eye,” which comes from the most ancient Hindu teachings and represents a state of enlightenment in which one “sees” the world and all experience from a deeply spiritual, enlightened point of view. The Third Eye is represented by the tilak, or red dot, that many religious Hindus paint on their foreheads. To Buddhists, the Third Eye is described as “the eye of consciousness,” representing an alternative view beyond physical sight. And it’s in this idea that we offer up the concept of “Third Ear Listening.”

In 1948, the Viennese psychoanalyst Theodore Reik published Listening with the Third Ear, which he explored the need to “learn how one mind speaks to another beyond words and in silence.” Third ear listening goes beyond hearing what someone is saying. It’s going for something deeper, looking into who they’re being and who you are being as you listen. Since Reik published the book, psychiatrists have adopted the term to address the “third ear” of subliminal cues to develop a deeper sensitivity and awareness of patients in therapy. But you don’t need to have a doctorate in psychology or be psychic to be great listener. As Reik wrote, great listeners learn “to extend their feelers, to seize the secret messages that go from one unconscious to another.”

“When you want to recognize and understand what takes place in the minds of others, you have first to look into yourself.” – Theodore Reik

How Our Minds Interfere with Listening.

In his book, Story Proof, Kendall Haven studies the neuroscience of how our minds interpret our experience of the world “as story.”

“Your brain has been hardwired to think, to understand, to make sense, and to remember in specific story terms and elements,” he writes. According to the research, he says, our minds create a neural story net that, “turns sensory information into a story that makes sense to you.” In other words, as you listen to a friend or a boss or a family member, your mind is assembling the random data coming in through your senses – the sounds and tones of the words, along with what you see, feel and think – and making associations with them. It assembles a story from the sounds you are hearing – but also from the other inputs. How you see me, how you feel me, how you smell me – even random unrelated memories that pop up in your mind as we’re talking – all become part of the story of who you think I am and what you think I just said.

According to Haven, the research seems to say that everything we experience is turned into a story as it takes shape in our minds (and Yuval Noah Harari suggests this state of mind is what caused Homo Sapiens to become the dominant human species). Depending on what is already in our minds, we will adjust what we are hearing to fit our subjective experience. As we assemble our own, internal experience of mind, we shape it with stories we synthesize from all our external input. What doesn’t make sense or fit within our self-created framework, we discard or rewrite until it feels cohesive within our own unique internal, cognitive framework.

And then your mind performs an amazing trick: it convinces you that you “know” what I just said, even when you may have completely misheard me.

He doesn’t undress the maid himself

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, has spent a lifetime studying the ways our minds work. He asks people to think about what it means, “to know.”

“In everyday language,” he said in talk to the National Academy of Science in 2012, “there are two conditions for using the word “know”: the absence of doubt and the truth of the belief.” Unfortunately, as he goes on to explain, neither of those conditions contain facts or even truth. “True believers believe that what they believe is true. They “know” it. From their point of view, science is just a religion and like all other religions it’s false compared to theirs.”

Scientists think they know what it means to know because they deal rigorously with factual data. But even scientists know their minds can act to bias and rewire their thoughts so that they come, like all of us, to accept things because they “feel” true.

Or, as Stephen Colbert would call it, “truthiness.” Truthiness is a way of knowing based on associative thinking. If someone I like, trust or respect says something, I’m more likely to believe the statement to be true. And if you’re trying to tell me something, I’ll be unconsciously editing everything your say to make it fit my already-in-place construction of who I think you are.

As Kahneman explains it, we have a story-telling system hard wired in our minds and the coherence of stories – rather than the actual facts – leads us to judge them as true. “Anything that is repeated many times,” he says,” is more likely to appear true. Anything that is processed easily is more likely to appear true. If it rhymes, it feels more likely to be true.”

As an example, Kahneman shares the story of an evening when Kahneman and his wife, the British cognitive scientist Anne Treisman, had dinner with another couple. Later, his wife mentioned the other man, saying, “He’s very sexy.”

While Kahneman was trying to process what he thought of that statement and what might make the man come across as sexy, his wife continued her thought.

“He doesn’t undress the maid himself,” she said.

Kahneman was astonished by the statement and thought of the many ways to take it. How would she know that? Had the man confessed to having an affair with the maid? And what an odd detail, leading one suddenly to wonder who does undress the maid and why can’t she undress herself? He realized the statement made no sense at all.

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“He doesn’t underestimate himself,” she repeated.

Kahneman realized that the first statement—the man is sexy—had primed his associative mind to color the second statement with sexiness. In other words, his mind literally rewrote the words his wife spoke to fit within the context of sexiness. (Count up the number of times you’ve misunderstood song lyrics!)

Fortunately, the logical part of his mind caused him to question what he thought he heard. But if he hadn’t asked to know more, that first statement would have been “what she said.” And Kahneman would have held as true that the man had something going on with the maid, even if he didn’t undress her himself. There is a feeling of knowing that comes with the assumption that what you heard is what was said. And we all are victims of that same phenomenon.

Listening from the Quiet Mind.

Imagine trying to listen to someone while wearing a pair of headphones that are feeding your ears with all kinds hot political outrage. You’re smiling and nodding at the person and trying hard to listen to what she’s saying, but your headphones are full of crazy thoughts flying into your mind. Obviously, it would be hard to be an effective listener in that situation.

But take the headphones off and what’s really different? Those headphones are a good metaphor for the constant inner dialogue that’s going on in the human mind most of our waking hours. We’re busy remembering the past and rewriting it. We’re reliving previous conversations. We’re projecting the past onto the future and worrying about things that have not happened. Even while we’re listening to each other, we’re often more engaged in our own thought patterns than we are in the conversation we’re having. And the most pernicious part of it is that so often we’re not aware of what’s happening in our own minds. Those ceaseless thoughts in our minds are actually filtering and reframing what the other person is trying to tell us. Like Daniel Kahneman mishearing his wife, our minds rewrite what we’re hearing to make the “story” fit our own train of thought.

The solution is to practice listening from “the quiet mind,” a mindset that is practiced at keeping a still spot in your mind to listen from. Meditation helps, but the most effect way to achieve a quiet, listening mind is through the breath. Try this, take a deep breath and, as you exhale, imagine you’re exhaling through the roof of your mouth and blowing up a balloon inside your cranium. As the imaginary balloon expands, it pushes your thoughts out to the edges of your mind. Continue exhaling, clearing your mind with each breath. Listen from there.

Imagine you are blowing up a balloon inside your cranium. As the balloon expands, it pushes your thoughts out to the edge of your mind. Listen from there.

This practice is designed to serve you in the heat of the moment and, like any practice, it helps you build a “muscle” that can serve you instantly, at the exact moment you need it. And, in this quiet mind, you can discover that you have a “Third Ear.”

Third Ear Listening

“If your mind is empty,” said Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese teacher who in 1959 established the Zen Center in San Francisco, “it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

From the vantage point of the quiet mind, you begin to hear things you might not have heard otherwise. Things that are unsaid, but heard anyway because your own empathetic, subconscious mind is feeding you cues. From there, you ask better questions and make better connections. In the quiet mind, you are listening without judgement. You’re listening to the person in the present moment and, as you do, you may call them into a deeper presence of their own. Now you’re having a real conversation.

The Christian mystic and author, Father Richard Rohr explains the Asian concept of the Third Eye as a metaphor for non-dualistic thinking. In his concept, the “first eye” refers to our visual capabilities. The “the second eye” refers to our ability to see more deeply through reflection and reason. The “Third Eye”  builds upon the first two but goes beyond rational thought and the point of view of our ego. He calls this level of awareness “having the mind of Christ.” In the same way, imagine “listening from the mind of Christ.” Developing the skill of Third Ear listening allows us to listen on a deep plane of understanding, a plane where we are more observant. And because observation changes outcomes (just ask any quantum physicist about that) your deeper listening will actually change the person you’re listening too.

And change yourself, as well.