At the till, I hear my partner say to the cashier: “It’s busy today!” It takes a moment, but then he surfaces out of the automatism of scanning groceries. His face lights up and he says: “Yes, it is!” and smiles a little smile. The interaction between us has opened up a smidgen. This is no longer such a generalised transaction.

Another example. Listening can also turn out to be: to yourself, even in conversation with others. Over days now, I’ve been exchanging phone calls and chat messages with my sister. She and her husband have offered to take my two small children home with them for a few days next week, to give me a little rest, and because they’d all enjoy it. They live a two-hour drive away. I’ve been worried, the kids excited. I’ve asked her several times: will this not be too much for them? Are they sure? Then, finally, this morning, I was able to admit to myself that I’m just scared to death to be without my babies for three days.

———

Listening wants an opening from us. Engaged, active listening asks us to open ourselves to what we hear. But, unavoidably, we also have terms of admission set up.

What listening has to do with admitting is this. To admit means to allow something or someone in, whether it’s a feeling, a thought, or a punter—into oneself, one’s group, one’s place. Buying a ticket to the concert, we make sure we will be allowed in on the day. Admitting comes from the Latin ad (to) + mittere (to send). To admit, then, is to send out for what comes back—the thing to be acknowledged or let in (regret, or a concert goer). To admit requires a precise opening (along the terms of admission). It means to determine, to some extent, what will be let in. Ideally, we admit what is appropriate, what fits. (We aim for that, it might not always work.)

I find listening particularly sensuous, and particularly dangerous.

Listening takes us back and forth between what we can, will—or not—hear and ourselves. Listening can take us on a journey, can make us wonder and wander, here, there, and back, and again, outwards, inwards. Listening sweeps up: us and what we hear and what happens in-between. That this is full of tension, is precisely what moves us.

In listening, there is an expectation of what we are going to hear. This involves us. An expectation will be met, or not. We realize this could change me. What of this will I admit, will I take in, will I let happen? How and how much will I—and what I’m hearing—change?

What say do we have over this? And how, after that, do we go on?

And yet, herein also lies the salvation of listening. Engaging in listening gives us opportunity to evolve, if we let it.

 

(Written on the occasion of the Social Acoustics event, University of Bergen, Norway, February 2020. Thank you, Jill Halstead for this opportunity to think about listening, and to Doran Osterhold, Ezequiel Di Paolo, and Leen De Jaegher for comments and inspiration.)