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Arts & Entertainment

Listen | Silent

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April 1, 2024


LISTEN | SILENT: Here I am, if quietly

In similar contradictory fashion to using written words to talk about blank pages, I’ll frame a post on listening and silence in music:

“It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”

_Miles Davis

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing the legendary Emmylou Harris at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester. However tiny to me from my seat in the second to last row, her incomparable voice matched the nooks and crannies of this grand, historic concert hall. Her words warbled and wandered, as she began each phrase strong and clear and faded/floated into fragility. I pictured the branches of her lyric-trees, thick at first and then thinning at the tips. The thin bits aren’t weakness—though it may reveal some of the fact of her aging—but rather, I think that the beauty of her voice lives in the contrast between, in these emotions of variation. The softer whispers make you want to lean in, get closer, listen harder, heart waiting, engaging, yearning. Considered one of her quieter songs, she began with “Here I am,” with the “am” just drifting off into the ether…

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Emmylou Harris at the Capitol Theatre

I am searching through the canyon
It is your name that I am calling
Though you’re so far away
I know you hear my plea
Why won’t you answer me?

Listening, like penmanship, is a dying art. I think we like to blame some toxic cocktail of pandemic-plus-tech for many of our social problems right now, but our tragic lack of listening skills far predates this. For decades (my whole life?) I’ve noticed: rare is the person who gets out of their own story long enough to really hear another, and I’m sure I’m guilty of that myself. Because I’ve done enough therapy to know this, I picture every person as the damaged child inside of their current shell. Our core wounds percolate just under the surface, barely hidden, but leaking eventually into everything if we don’t tend to them. When I see a person who talks too much, I know they weren’t heard and long suffer from being misunderstood. And I know this because I am the same.

The book The Lost Art of Listening (Michael P. Nichols, 2009) is nicely summed up in an essay on the American Society for Cybernetics site. And in case you don’t know—I didn’t either—cybernetics, not to be confused with the fake science of dianetics from Scientology, is defined in Merriam-Webster as “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems (such as the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems).”

Nothing really new in this book but important to repeat, since listening and learning about listening requires continual practice. We get in our own way in relationships, especially with family and intimate partners where all the baggage and heightened expectation can be debilitating. In Nichols’ book, it’s clear that our patterns are formed before we’ve even developed consciousness—babies not well enough attended to can establish an abandonment belief as soon birth to the age of 2 months. By the time language develops (15-18 months old), getting chronically ignored can already do enough damage to produce a permanently sad person. By the age of 4 or 5, the child who is listened to shows confidence and trust in school, while the ignored child will notably withdraw.

People don’t listen because they don’t know how; we aren’t taught. We are so busy forming assumptions and fixating on our own agenda, getting defensive, and worst: just waiting to speak. Varieties of not listening, according to Nichols, include:

  1. Responding with a story that your story reminds me of.
  2. Overdone sympathy that becomes condescending.
  3. Giving advice/solutions when not asked.
  4. Making a joke about everything to cover discomfort.
  5. Telling a person not to feel the way they do.


Logos 9, created at the Internet Anagram Server; CC BY-SA 4.0


Major epiphany from this simple gif: how did I never notice that Silent and Listen are anagrams! While silence is indeed the most important ingredient of good listening, this doesn’t mean listening entails sitting there passively and just absorbing by osmosis. Whole body/being listening requires actively attending to the speaker with empathy and openness. Nodding, eye contact, interest, focus, a worthy and welcome response. Essentially it’s the difference between hearing (just our ears working from a scientific perspective) vs. the choice and effort of listening. Not just using the shorthand we’re given in life to think we fathom things that we’ve known forever—as in object relations theory, which quickly links mental constructs to things rather than demanding we take the time to observe and assess the thing itself.

Imagine that the person before us, as are we, is a complicated graph with x and y axes. There’s all we see and don’t see in two splits, according to this Lost Art of Listening book: the vertical split between the voices within that war in us to do or not do. And the horizontal split that pushes things down or up, repression/expression. Which quadrants are we dealing with when a person is showing you a rebellious part, an angry part, a protective part? And what lies beneath? Where is that injured child sitting and how might they be coaxed out and soothed?

Lately I’ve been dipping into my old written lectures from my writing instructor days for nuggets of wisdom on life and art—mostly not from me directly but worthier experts who came before and influenced my practice and thinking. A good writer should, perhaps counterintuitively, be foremost a good listener.

From my lecture on silence:

In real life, people don’t listen properly, and there’s also a good amount of silence. Don’t be afraid of silence. Life has gaps, white space, unfilled moments. Ever notice how the more you know someone, the quieter you can be around them? Silence can come from confidence of knowing someone, the way you should know your characters enough to let them not talk on occasion. Real talk has: ellipses, pregnant pauses. Like poetry, it is full of gaps and elisions. Not everything is said. In fact, the best stuff might lie the most unsaid.

Silence unnerves us; we read into it more than the words given to us. For this reason, use it! It’s a powerful tool. The writer should pay most attention to the silent people in a scene of talkers. They are often the most interesting ones.

A passage from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones on the subject:

Writing, too, is ninety percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you write, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck. Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write. You take in the way things are without judgment, and the next day you can write the truth about the way things are. Jack Kerouac in his list of prose essentials said, ‘Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening.’ He also said, ‘No time for poetry, but exactly what is.’ If you can capture the way things are, that’s all the poetry you’ll ever need.

Surviving in a house of teens requires great feats of mental strength I do not often have, as I navigate with dull or insufficient tools this weird terrain of setting boundaries while knowing they are meant to test such boundaries in their necessary growth up and away. Our listening is so full of noise and mini-to-maxi failures. We are screaming or silent, fighting or pouting. But the rare and beautiful moments where all good moods align around the dinner table and stories and laughter flow, makes this weird work of motherhood all worthwhile. It can’t be that bad if—sometimes—we find our way to those kind oases.

Of course our addiction to technology is further dampening our already awful listening skills and forever dulling our attention, posits this article in the GeekyLeader. The author sums up You’re Not Listeningthe 2021 book by Kate Murphy, with her 90-9-1 rule of the internet, which states “that 90% of users of a given social media platform are passive observers, 9% comment and contribute occasionally, and only 1% generate the majority of the content.” So, much like our handful of billionaires who get to rule all commerce and earn evermore money, 1% of the loudest talkers are the ones who determine the “content.” And sadly, we are way better at listening to strangers than to loved ones.

The worst scenario of this plays out in politics where our American divide has grown into what feels like an unbridgeable canyon.

Politicians don’t have dialogs to work together, but rather each has their monolog, not even trying to pretend that they listen to the opposing party. For example, if you have ever listened to the US congressional hearings, you probably wondered why they are called “hearings” since no one listens. Many representatives use these hearings to enhance their image and feeling of self-importance rather than trying to listen and understand those invited to speak. Interruptions, pontifications, and berating of the speaker are part of the game. When you read the transcript, you will often find the word “crosstalk” written in all caps to indicate that everyone was talking simultaneously and the transcriber couldn’t follow the conversation. Everyone talked, and no one listened.

I imagine instead a true leader as one who does not need so much to use their own voice to fill every space. The most important part of any campaign should be the listening tour.

There are a few answers on YouTube to the search for the “world’s quietest song” so I’ll end this by sharing this one—actually quite loud when mundane things like a pin drop and little creatures (flap of a butterfly wing, hiss of snake) are recorded with a high-powered microphone:

The World's Quietest Song | Andrew Huang Has A Field Day

Here I am, everything around us is whispering, raising their hands. Hear me. Heal me.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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