The scallop and the wall
In another blog I wrote about the dangers of a casual glance. It was an introduction to the topic of looking which was in turn, an introduction to its big sister topic of listening. Listening is central and essential to all forms of interpersonal communication. If you ever have to choose between only looking and only listening, choose to listen. And make the choice quickly or you’ll most probably talk yourself into looking. After all, it is what most of us are most comfortable doing. By which I mean, looking is the sense most of us prioritise rather than meaning it’s a sense we use brilliantly. Just because we have eyes it doesn’t automatically follow that we know how to look with acuity and insight. Just as having ears doesn’t make us instinctively great listeners. This is equally true, of course, for all of our senses; having them and using them habitually doesn’t guarantee any great standard of refinement. Before I run us into a wall, let me give you just one example of this.
I have a friend who is a 2 Michelin star chef. He is a culinary genius. He has an understanding of, and a relationship with, food that I cannot even imagine fully. One day I asked him to do some imagining. I asked him to imagine that he was eating a strawberry. He obliged. It was a most easy thing for him to do. I watched him feel the non-existent fruit in his mouth then bite into it and experience the burst of flavour. I watched as his lips, tongue and the inside of his mouth changed in response to the sensation he was creating. I watched as his facial skin changed and his eyes, too. I realised at that moment that, despite the fact I had been eating food for all of my life, I had never – and have still never – tasted food in the way he does.
We talked about this further and it quickly became clear that he recognised far more flavours and textures than I ever had. His experience of eating one single strawberry (whether real or imagined) was far more comprehensive and insightful than my own. Indeed some time later, in his kitchen, he pointed to his latest intake of scallops, received from his Scottish supplier, and said, ‘Chris, if you really want to learn how to cook, you first of all have to learn how to listen to the food. You have to open that scallop and hear what it’s telling you. I mean hear it! Properly! You really have to listen!’
I’d been a fool to presume that because I had a nose, mouth and tongue I could taste and smell food as he did. He was an extremely skilled professional who had worked to develop his sensory acuity. I just liked to eat and drink. Ultimately, that’s why I pay for him to do the cooking.
This difference is equally true in the world of interpersonal communication. Only the world of interpersonal communication pretty much is the world. Our communication with others is either the bridge that joins us or the wall that forces us apart. This is as true in marriage and family life, as it is in education and healthcare, as it is in business and politics. How individuals communicate determines not only the quality of their life experience but, often, the quality of other people’s experiences too. So we ought to get good at it and, by and large, we pretty much don’t. By and large we are about as good at listening to others as we are at listening to a scallop.
Because we are creatures of habit - and there are all sorts of good reasons why it makes sense to be habitual on a daily basis. There are also times in every day when we absolutely need to discard certain habits in favour of real attention-giving. Those times include whenever we are communicating with others. We can’t listen properly through the incessant buzz of habit. We can’t hear accurately what is being said, let alone what isn’t being said, through the soundproofed wall of presumption; that’s the wall we create every time we engage with another human being certain that we know who they are and what they have to say, it’s the wall we lean against whenever we tell ourselves I’ve heard this all before and retreat into our own head instead of finding new ways into theirs, it’s the wall built upon certainty and knowing that blocks out forgetfulness, curiosity, attentiveness and respect; the essential ingredients for skilled and ethical communication.
So, if we want to become really good at listening, the first thing we have to do is knock down the wall of knowledge and ‘I-ness’. Then we can listen into the silence and forgetfulness that’s left. And if we learn to do that well, who knows, we might even hear the scallop speak.
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