Hearing Versus Listening
As subtle as it might be, there is a big difference between listening to someone and really hearing them. In life, we listen but we don’t hear. How many times in our lives do we disconnect during a conversation?
When was the last time that you heard what someone really said to you? When was the last time that you were so in tune to what that person said that you could hear the sarcasm in their voice? For example, your girlfriend is on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. You walk in and ask, “What are you doing?” “What does it look like I’m doing?” She snorts. Her reply is laced with acid. She doesn’t even look at you.
Did you hear what she really said to you? When she said, ‘What does it look like I’m doing,’ she was clearly telling you that she thought your question was stupid. Did this have any effect on you? In other words, did you respond directly to the sarcasm or did you just stand there, impregnable to her overtures? If it was the latter, then you were out of adjustment with what she was giving you. Don’t worry if this was you. You can count yourself among the vast majority of people that would have responded in kind.
We try hard to multi-task between twitter and texting, but invariably that means we’re not always listening to someone who’s speaking to us. As blunt as this might sound, we are merely waiting for the other person to stop talking so that we can speak the thought that we were thinking a minute earlier. How can we expect to react or absorb what another person is saying if we are in our head, preoccupied with what we have to say, or off in a world of our own?
In my experience, there is nothing more important than learning to “listen” and “work off” of another person, especially a witness during direct and cross-examination. I learned a painful lesson about the importance of listening to every word uttered by a witness in one of my first trials. I missed a bombshell that came straight from the mouth of the arresting officer on cross-examination where he referred to my client as “one of those people.”
Nothing could have revealed a deeper racial bias. Sadly, it fell on deaf ears because I was not listening. Instead, I was merely waiting for the officer to stop talking so that I could ask the next question that was on the tip of my tongue.
In theater, the type of listening that we do in real life is referred to as “casual listening” or “sloppy listening.” It is not acceptable. Instead, actors are taught to listen with all of themselves. As any actor will attest, the tone and pitch of a person’s voice, not to mention their behavior conveys more information about a person’s true feelings than the actual words they speak. For example, a gesture, a tic, a shift in posture, the shrug or slump of a shoulder, the rolling of the eyes, the furrow of a brow, are all a means of communicating.
Alert attention is different than casual half-listening. As my instructor says, “You have to listen on stage like you’ve never listened before … as if your life depended on it.” This type of listening has to be as primal as that of a deer who is on heightened alert for the rustling of leaves or the snapping of a twig as a warning that a predator is near. The deer that fails to heed such a warning usually ends up adorned to the bumper of a hunter’s car.
A theme that gets repeated over and over again in acting is that when you are really listening to someone, you begin to experience the other person. A famous quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti embodies this theme: “When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
To this day, I can still hear the words of my acting instructor echoing through my head, “The more you look, the more you’ll see. The more you listen, the more you’ll hear.” When you are really listening to someone, you pick up nuances in the tone of that person’s voice. You learn to respond to voice inflection, volume, physical mannerisms, rhythm and musicality of speak, and the specifics of behavioral responses. We listen with all of our senses, not just one.
Some additional benefits of “primal” listening that I’ve experienced firsthand is that when I am listening with all of my attention on the other person then I am not watching myself. I am not anticipating or waiting for the other person to say or do anything. My guard is down and I am open and available. I am not planning my reactions. I am letting myself be and allowing things to happen. Feelings come and go but I am not trying to feel or do anything.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be in the company of another person without trying to be funny, or smart, or struggling to impress or seek approval. The experience of being here and now without fear or concern for approval is incredibly liberating. It is as important as it gets for human beings, who by nature are social animals.
Why is heightened listening vital in the courtroom?
(1) You won’t miss important things that are said by a witness. You’ll become more sensitized and aware of the feelings of the jurors as communicated nonverbally by them. Many lawyers overlook the fact that the jury is speaking back to them during the trial. Instead, they comment on how the jurors have “poker faces” or that they are “deadpan.” First of all, there is no such thing as nothing. There is always something. In fact, silence is considered the most expressive form of communication.
(2) Second, you can’t passively be hoping to get something from the jury. You are just as important a part of the equation as the jurors are. The nonverbal communication you radiate is essential. The attorney who is emotionally available and allows himself to be affected by the jury builds a bridge of contact with the jury. For example, the attorney might pause, allowing the jury to react through facial expressions and body language. A smile from one of the jurors might cause you to smile back or to well up with pride. It’s as if the lawyer is having a conversation with the jury even though the jury is not speaking back verbally. When there is genuine contact between the attorney and the jurors, the relationship between the two lives.
Here are some tips for building a bridge of contact with the jury:
- The more natural and conversational you are the better.
- Speak from the heart.
- Make the jury your entire focus.
- You have to get up there with the intention of making contact. It’s a two-way street. Metaphorically speaking, you’re building a bridge of contact with the jury by really listening and really seeing. When there is genuine contact that comes from really listening and really seeing, whatever is going on in Person A shows up somehow in Person B. In other words, something about Person A is going to change Person B.
- I liken the jury to an electric current that you, as the attorney are wired to. What comes out of them comes off of you and what comes out of you comes off of them. You and the jury are constantly affecting each other. It’s as if you’re tied together at the hip.
It’s easy to say that we’re going to be better listeners, but talk is cheap. How do we do it? First, you must throw away what you once thought to be true about having a good conversation. Advice like “always maintain eye contact” and “nod to let the other person know you’re listening” are wives’ tales that are nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt at pretending you are paying attention. Trying hard to maintain eye contact during a conversation actually has the opposite effect: it takes away from the focus you could otherwise be devoting on what the other person is saying; and responding accordingly.
Second, we have to quiet some of the inner chatter going on inside our head. This is easier said than done, thanks in part to evolution. While we can only speak about 150 words per minute, the inner dialogue going on in our brain operates at nearly three times that rate. Meditation is helpful in training our brains to separate the wheat from the chaff when we are inundated with a torrent of information that hits us with the force of a tidal wave.
Third, in order to listen to someone in an engaged way, you must understand not just the supertext but the subtext or the underlying meaning. Fourth, be careful about carrying assumptions about the other person into a conversation. Familiarity with the other person isn’t a safeguard against the inaccuracy of these assumptions. Ironically, research has shown that the assumptions we make in everyday conversations with close friends and family members are more out of sync than the assumptions we make about total strangers. Ouch!
But the real danger in making incorrect assumptions is that it creates a dynamic where each person thinks that they already know what the other person is going to say before the other person can finish getting the words out. As a result, it blocks us from really listening. Unfortunately, self-awareness of our own biases is woefully inadequate for overcoming them. The only antidote that exists to thwart the deleterious effect of biases is to deploy empathy. Empathy allows us to view the other person as a multi-faceted person rather than a heap of metal on an assembly line.
Finally, listening is a skill just like writing or playing baseball. The more you practice, the better you get. That’s good news because it means that you can learn to listen and be with the person who’s talking to you when they’re talking to you.
Being there when a person is talking to you is a vital skill for a lawyer to possess both in and out of the courtroom. I try to bring into my everyday life the creative exploration, magical wonder, and depth I learned through acting. Some days it is just about connecting with another person — really listening to them, looking into their eyes, and seeing their essence. In this age of digital overwhelm, multi-tasking, and political unrest, it’s nice to think that we can become more connected to each other by enhancing our conversation skills.