The nature of being human shifts when we listen for context rather than for mere content. In part 1 of this two-part blog on the Importance of Context, I distinguished between the significance and decisiveness of context. We saw that listening, more than any other human faculty, is our access to context. This blog explores ways that listening is decisive.

Listening and Meaning-Making

Humans make sense of life in the meaning we assign to events. In a sense, we are literary beings. Things matter to us because they bring meaning to our existence. By perceiving, observing, sensing, and interpreting experiences, we make meaning and meaning makes us.

The nature of “being” is contextual—it is neither a substance nor a process; rather, it is a context for experiencing life that brings coherence to our existence. The first choice we ever make is one that we might not be conscious of. To what reality do we grant being?

In other words, what do we choose to acknowledge; what do we pay attention to? To whom do we listen? How do we listen, and what interpretations do we acknowledge? These become the framework for the reality through which we think, plan, act, and react.

Latent Listening Structures

One of the most inaccurate assessments of another person is that “they’re not listening.” This view represents a misunderstanding of listening.

Humans are always granting being or listening to something. It requires exceptional presence and practice to bring bare awareness to a subject. But that is quite different from the claim that we are not listening.

In most cases, by “not listening,” we imply that there’s a lack of attention placed on the current subject. Our speaking has not registered fully in the presence of another’s listening. One’s focus is elsewhere, on some other subject or speaking. But on what?

Philosopher Martin Heidegger framed our involvement in the world as an always–already phenomenon. As subjects, we exist within latent structures in our listening before we perceive ourselves as such.

These latent listening structures reveal the features of a phenomenon that seem to precede any perception of it. According to coaching scholar Alan Sieler, these structures are “always” present and “already” present in an “automatic” manner. He terms this dynamic “Triple-A listening.” When we show up, this latent listening shows up.

Listening is, therefore, our hidden context: our blind spots, threats, and fears; our expectations, identities, and cultural norms; and our web of interpretations and horizon of possibilities. This listening offers a context for our words and actions.

Listening Constraints

Most of us are unaware that our listening is not an empty vessel or blank slate, but that it contains such listening constraints.

We assume that whatever someone says to us just enters our ears, is registered, and lands in our listening exactly as it was said. We often repeat the words back to the speaker as if a match in content (words) is also a match in context (meaning).

We Have Filters

While we may hear what is said, latent structures in our listening influence our perceptions to shape meaning.

When two people speak, three conversations occur, according to learning theorist and author Chris Argyris: the audible or public conversation and the two private conversations inside each person’s head. That private conversation filters our emotions, values, thoughts, and beliefs.

These many layers of assumptions, norms and expectations constitute our latent listening as the fundamental structure that filters content. Such latent structures exist as perceptual structures that, until surfaced, shape what we see, hear, and act on.

Workshop facilitator Peter G. Vajda states that in the process of sorting or filtering, we react. “We tend to distort the message and its meaning and direct our conversation and attention to the distortion rather than to what was actually said.”

  • Listening filters sort out what we hear based on the conditioning of beliefs, socialized values, cultural norms, histories, memories, etc.
  • Deep down, our listening filters adopt a binary structure — such as right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, win/lose, I know/don’t know, or agree/disagree — to sort and shape our thoughts and experiences.

Filters Have Us

To illustrate an “I know” filter: say you are cooking in the kitchen, and your spouse walks in and says, “You need to stir this pot.” You may defensively blurt out, “I know!”—even though letting your spouse know that you know is irrelevant to anything other than defending your latent listening that “I know.”

The impulse or need to say “I know” comes from “I know” already existing in your listening. It is not that you are thinking, “I know,” and then say it. It is that who you are in that moment is “I know,” ready to be expressed. So when someone says something that occurs for you as a challenge to who you are, you respond habitually, “I know.”

Author and researcher Otto Scharmer of Theory U describes a response like, “Yeah, I know that already” as downloading: “listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When you are in a situation where everything that happens confirms what you already know, you are listening by downloading.”

Our latent listening structures remain unconscious to us, yet they confirm our habitual judgments to shape our observations, listening, and speaking. Concealed from us, these latent structures exist before we can hear anything new.

Think about a situation when you reacted, habitually or automatically, and you will become aware of how these structures shape your listening. Much of this form an endless listening loop.

Our Endless Listening Loop

Most individuals encounter life at a surface level of listening. We react by downloading events and uploading responses. This level of listening finds us transacting tasks in an endless listening loop of

  • noticing what we react to, and
  • reacting to what we notice.

Our listening filters condition this endless listening loop. We tend to refine our filter to limit our bandwidth for noticing anything beyond what can be downloaded. In short, there is a gap between what we hear (what enters our ears) and what we listen to (what registers and informs us). Said another way, our listening is decisive. The way we listen, whether explicit or implicit, defines our views, speaking, and actions.

The grid below shows some of the content in our latent listening.

  • The interior funnel (bold items) includes some structures and concerns that we experience as we engage with information, others, or the world.
  • Outside the funnel includes some of the questions or concerns often coming at us.

Click to Enlarge

As you review this grid and move from the right side (ear) to the left side (brain), review all of the implicit structures, such as assumptions, beliefs, and stories, or the explicit structures, such as distractions, conditions, and symbols that occupy the space between our ear (right side) and our brain (left side).

  • Which of these items can you observe in your listening?
  • Which of these are most pertinent to you in any situation or during specific situations?
  • Which of these might you automatically bring to any conversation?

The Listening We Are

We do not do listening or have listening – we are a listening. Latent listening exists as a fundamental context, shaping what’s possible in any situation.

I remember my mentor sharing moments from the movie The Matrix with me. She correlated its premise with my writing, teaching, study, and practices. I had found the movie’s trailer to be very violent, so I listened to her through an “I’m against violence” filter. More precisely, I listened to her thought latent binary structure of “good/bad” or right/wrong,” with “bad” and wrong” ready to shape my listening. Who I was as a listening filter biased — actually closed me to — the possibility she shared. I thereby rejected the movie.

Years later, after my mentor had passed away, I caught the movie one night on television. Instantly, I related to the narrative, philosophy, and underlying themes. Any violence now seemed ancillary. I have often reflected on the many conversations I might have enjoyed with my mentor. I have since purchased The Matrix trilogy and viewed it dozens of times.

Whether music, movies, different personalities, culture, or other experiences, our ability to hear music, view movies or share culture or friendship, etc., is not hampered. Rather, our listening of these experiences is unconsciously constrained and shaped by our latent listening deep in the background. 

Even though we think we are open-minded, coming to a situation as a blank slate, we listen to people through a filter of assumptions from deep in the background. Paradoxically, situations or conditions that trigger us can also surface that background and reveals our latent listening structures.

In the Background

Much of what is conveyed in a conversation is implicit by virtue of a network of background conversations. In their paper Organizational Change As Shifting Conversations (1999), Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford discuss background conversations as “an implicit, unspoken ‘backdrop’ within which explicit conversations occur and on which they rely for grounding and understanding.”

They contend that background conversations “manifest in our everyday dealings as a taken-for-granted familiarity or obviousness that pervades our situation and is presupposed in our every conversation.”

A conversation between a female manager and male worker, for example, may occur against a background for gender, manager and worker, oppression or exploitation, human rights, business, organization culture, family relations, or the singles’ dating market.

Like the “I know” filter presented earlier, Ford et al. suggest that “background conversations bring both history and future into the present utterance by responding to, reaccentuating, and reworking past conversations while anticipating and shaping subsequent conversations.”

Context begins in our listening and is decisive. Can we hear with our eyes and see with our ears? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”

What we believe (context) often counters and always influences the facts and events (content) we observe and experience to a degree. We listen first to our background beliefs, assumptions, and values.

We are often used by and at the effect of concealed, habitual, or reflexive backgrounds. How can we discern and become present to the interior structures in the background?

Interior Structures

When viewing context, most focus on exterior conditions without examining interior structures, such as backgrounds that reveal the past, perspectives that can reveal both past and present, and possibility that reveals an emerging future.

Backgrounds. Drawn from our past (often historical or socialized) and automatic in our listening, backgrounds remain undistinguished and concealed from us. Backgrounds live in our latent listening. They reveal our assumptions, norms, worldviews, or unexpressed expectations about how things should go.

Perspectives. Any point of view or attitude — either explicit or implicit such as frames of reference — offer perspective. Shifting perspective in the moment can be most challenging. Pausing and questioning can help to surface outmoded assumptions or entrenched frames of reference. A helpful question is how important will this event or choice be in 1, 5, or 10 years? Often viewing current events in a different context can expand perspective and lessen its charge.

George Carlin shared this view on “perspective”: “Some people see the cup as half empty. Some people see the cup as half full. I see the cup as too large.”

Shared Background. By dropping assumptions, surfacing expectations, and sharing perspectives, we reveal concealed backgrounds. Once surfaced, we can create a “shared obviousness” with others—making what’s obvious to us obvious to others. Once distinguished, this “obviousness” can support creating a shared understanding.

Possibility. How we discern backgrounds, surface perspectives, and drop agendas or goals cultivates space. We become available, cultivating radical openness and imagination for something new, uncertain, and unpredictable. Such a space allows for an emerging possibility.

The grid below supports us in discerning the structures in our listening.

Click to Enlarge

Discerning and Creating Context

Becoming present to the categories Background, Perspective, and Possibility in the grid above supports practices under the columns What to Drop, What to Clarify, and What to Create.

a) What to Drop. Surfacing concealed items makes it possible to shift items from unintentional to intentional in our awareness. With awareness, we can either bracket (set aside) or let go of what’s arisen. Reflecting later on items we bracket or set aside invites questioning to create space for openness.

b) What to Clarify. Observing items in our awareness and within language supports us in identifying and recognizing them. We can then communicate any framing, concerns, or gaps in our awareness.

c) What to Create. With spaciousness, we create the context to shape new understanding, presence, and possibility.

Just the awareness of Background, Perspective, and Possibility opens our listening. Accepting the presence of background will find us asking superior questions. Surfacing perspectives will find us inviting more views. And acknowledging both of these will find us opening possibilities.

Possibility can reveal both an emerging future and previously unseen backgrounds and perspectives, returning us to discovering and uncovering to cultivate openness. In the space of openness, we can recreate each other. We learn to be with another (or a situation) exactly as they are and as they are not.

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 12.5 min


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.