Two Qualities of Listening

Listen Cat, by Laura Carmichael

Listen Cat, by Laura Carmichael

I would like to talk about what I call two qualities of listening. One is External, the other Internal. Both ask for presence, and when practiced mindfully can lead to new insights and ideas, lifting us out of our habits.

The first can be practiced by listening to your environment with attention. Or maybe that should be capital A, Attention. One way to think about this is listening to everything except the content of a conversation or text. It’s the tone, color, and pure sensory experience of hearing sound. It’s listening to nature, to traffic, to the electrical sounds in your house, to all the breath noises when someone is speaking. John Cage and Pauline Oliveros are just two of many composers who have spent a lifetime time busy with this practice.

An exercise: External Listening (part 1) the Environment

Try listening to the environment while riding your bike, waiting for a bus, or sitting in your car in the parking lot with the window open. Listen in 360 degrees. See if you can locate the furthest away sound. Where does it feel like it’s located? Does it change, or is it steady? What other sounds catch your attention while focusing on that sound? What sounds are near by? Do you perceive any repeating patterns? Can you play with foreground and background in your listening, shifting your focus from one sound to another? Now the tricky part, for fun. Can you listen without naming the thing that is making the sound, just noticing the sonic qualities of the sound itself? Can you feel it as a sensation? If you immediately name something (like “circular saw”) see if you can let that go and listen in even more detail to what the sound is doing, not simply saying “cutting” in your head. Extend the time you focus on the sound. Deliberately try to suspend any internal dialogue in your head, and focus on the sensation of hearing.

External Listening (part 2) People

Listen to the text, or content of a speaker with rapt Attention. Can you listen to the words someone is saying and suspend your own storyline for a while? Can you turn down the volume on your own inner dialogue and judgments, and listen with a very high percent focused externally? I love the idea of imagining that your ears get really big, as if you become just a giant ear. You don’t confirm, agree, disagree or comment. Just for a couple of minutes, listen to someone talk. Listen as if you are going to transcribe the text by memory.

Some Perspective

I love what Ellen Langer, artist and professor of psychology at Harvard University, says about paying attention. “Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.” Read the full article here, in Harvard Business Review. It’s not a wholly new idea, Buddhists have been talking about it for centuries, though her version was born from a Western scientific research-based model.

The Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky wrote about it in 1917 in Art as Technique, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

Perhaps the art is to make the practice of noticing our own; to make it personal, topical and current to our life and times.

Listening Internally

What about all those voices in our head? How often do we pay attention to them, much less identify how they are functioning? Very often we don’t notice the environment because we are caught up in our own running thoughts. And very often we don’t really notice what’s going in our head because we are caught up in trying to be clever, do our work, and control things. This creates a kind of mental clutter, lack of presence, and missed moments (aka missed opportunities). Then we have to rely on clichés and preconceived judgments.

Listening inside—deliberately noticing the voices in our heads, gives us a start on being able to choose if we want to take direction from them or not. Is it a judging voice? Habitually skeptical, anxious or insecure? It doesn’t mean we get rid of negative voices. Fear may not disappear, but it doesn’t have to run the show. Personal evolution, or maturity, comes in large part from noticing these voices and consciously shifting our focus to the ones that offer empowerment, hope and inspiration. Or course there are many techniques for working on these destructive inner voices, I don’t mean to oversimplify. But naming and noticing can be a powerful start. Women's leadership coach Tara Mohr writes in depth about this in her book Playing Big. She calls these voices the Inner Critic and Inner Mentor (I am following her Facilitator's Training, incorporating her work into my creativity workshops and corporate training programs).

Shifting Back and Forth from Internal to External

Consciously mixing this inner and outer awareness is endlessly fascinating and often a lot of fun. You can practice shifting your focus from listen to the environment, back again to your internal dialogue. You'll never be bored standing in line in the airport again.

It is very much akin to being a musician. Like all classical musicians, when I received my training I studied the “text” - the score - religiously, trying to pay close attention to what is there. Musicians also learn performance practice, handed down by teachers (this is why musicians always ask who you studied with, not where). We are part of an aural tradition; we take much into consideration that cannot be in the text. We also need to listen acutely to what’s actually happening in the moment. If a colleague plays a pitch a little flat, we can adjust. It is irrelevant what is “right.” We just make it work. But we have to hear it accurately first in order to respond (and we have to have practiced the necessary skills).

But we also need to listen internally. Otherwise things get too mechanical. What draws our attention? How can we imagine the sound? Is anything getting in the way of us trusting ourselves, to let ourselves find and then try our own original version? The internal devils of “getting it right” “impressing” “approval” and being “perfect” are severe, especially in classical music. It’s a beautiful tradition, but there can be a lot of suffering that can come between us and our longing to be one with the music. There is a lot of hierarchy, hero worship, judgment, comparison and competition. Unfortunately, none of these qualities allows for creativity. It’s a killer, and we need to liberate ourselves for the sake of creating art that is fresh, but also for our own life’s sake, for the possibility of pleasure and satisfaction in what we are doing. The chance to again, HEAR, what we are really doing, and LISTEN to what is really happening in the moment, and consider again and again possibilities rather than trying to fix things and freeze them into a perfect state. It’s parallel in other aspects of life, and other fields of work.

Keeping it Fresh

In short, we need to stay fresh. We need to keep evolving and learning. We need to stimulate ourselves in new ways, or in old ways that are truly engaging/engaged. It gives energy. It prevents us from numbing out, which may have much larger implications for our lives and even the world. When we are listening and paying attention more mindfully, we see the subtleties, the grey areas, and are less judgmental. If there is more empathy, we can relate in new ways, and might be motivated to change some old problems. We might find our own voice getting stronger, but from a different source. Not the fear-based, pushy, self-righteous, aggressive one, but the wise open-minded one, the one who sees possibilities and works for change in the world because we feel a problem and a longing deep down in our bones.

Laura Carmichael is a creativity coach and a corporate trainer in the areas of leadership and intercultural communication. Informed by over twenty five years work in the arts, she seeks to empower people who want to make the world a better place. Read more at

Laura Carmichael