The nature of being human shifts when we listen for context rather than for mere content. In our last blog post 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 post explores several 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.

Always-Already-Automatic Listening

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 takes an exceptional amount of training and practice to bring nothingness (blank slate) to the matter at hand. But that is quite different from the claim that we are not listening.

In most cases, what we mean by “not listening” is that the matter at hand is not registering in the listening that is present; that listening is insufficient and is rather focused elsewhere, on some other 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 listening structures reveal the features of a phenomenon that seem to precede any perception of it and are said to be “always, already, and always” present. This listening is always, already and automatically there, whenever and wherever we exist. When we show up, it shows up.

Listening is therefore our hidden context: our blind spots, threats, and fears; our content, structure, and processes; our expectations, identities, and cultural norms; and our web of interpretations and horizon of possibilities all offer a context for our words and actions.

These many layers of assumptions, norms, and expectations make up our alwaysalready listening as the fundamental structure that filters content. Such latent structures are a perceptual constraint that, until surfaced, shapes what we see, hear, and act on.

So, then, what gets in the way of us being in the present moment?

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

Perceptual 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).

While we may hear what is said as it was said, latent structures and content in our listening influence our perceptions to shape meaning.

  • Binary framing structures such as right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, win/lose, I know/don’t know, or agree/disagree are examples of binary filters that shape our thoughts and experiences.
  • Content such as concealed histories, associated memories, or socialized norms and culture also shapes our perceptions.

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 alwaysalready listening that “I know.”

The entire need to say “I know” comes from “I know” being always and already in your listening. It is not that you are thinking “I know;” it is that who you are in that moment is “I know,” and when someone says something that occurs for you as a challenge to who you are, you respond defensively.

The perceptual constraint that we call alwaysalready listening shapes our observations, listening, and speaking. Concealed from us, it is already and always there before we can hear anything new.

Think about it, and you will find an example by identifying someone in your life to whom you are alwaysalready listening before that person even opens their mouth. Much of this forms a recurring loop.

Our Recurring Loop

Most individuals engage life at a surface level of listening. At the surface, we react by downloading events and uploading responses. This level of listening finds us transacting tasks in a recurring loop of

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

Our listening filters train us to engage life in this recurring loop. We tend to refine our filter for our already–always listening, which limits 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 lands 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 already–always 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.
listening recurring loop

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 own 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. That listening, more than anything else, shapes 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 already present in my listening. Who I was as a listening filter biased 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, and 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.

In the same way, people listen to classical music with an “I don’t like classical music” filter already in their listening before they even hear a new piece of classical music.

In these instances, our ability to hear music or view a movie is not interfered with, but our listening of these experiences is constrained and shaped by our alreadyalways listening.

Even though we think we are open-minded, coming to a situation as a blank slate, we can now see that we listen to people through a filter of assumptions from deep in the background.

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 continue 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 to a degree the facts and events (content) we observe and experience. 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. To become co-creators, we can 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. These begin with our already-always-automatically listening and reveal our assumptions, norms, and worldviews about how things are, or our unexpressed expectations about the way things ought to go.

Perspective refers to a point of view or attitude that can either be explicit or implicit, such as frames of reference. To shift perspective in the moment, we can pause with a question: how important will this event or choice be in 1, 5, or 10 years? Often viewing current events in a historic 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 and can create a “shared obviousness” with others—making what’s obvious to us obvious for others. Once distinguished, this “obviousness” can support creating a shared understanding, which cultivates possibility.

Possibility. The way we discern backgrounds, surface perspectives, and drop any agendas or goals cultivates a presence, an availability that cultivates the radical openness and imagination for something new, uncertain, and unpredictable. Such a space allows for an emerging future possibility.

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

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 details surface items, shifting them from unintentional to intentional in our awareness. Then we can either bracket (set aside) or let go of what’s arisen to create space for openness.

b) What to Clarify details items in our awareness and within language so that we may note and name them. We can then communicate any framing, concerns, or gaps in our awareness.

c) What to Create details the contexts that open new understandings, presence, and possibility.

Just the awareness of Background, Perspective, and Possibility offers an emerging openness in our listening. Accepting the presence of background will find us asking superior questions. To surface perspectives will find us inviting more views. And to acknowledge both of these will find us opening possibility.

Possibility can reveal both an emerging future and previously unseen backgrounds and perspectives, returning us to uncovering and disclosing 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.

As we become present to our specific assumptions and interpretations, we become present to the possibility of listening we bring to any conversation. In this way, we shift our view of reality as co-created by our participation.

Reading Time: 13.5 min. Digest Time: 21.5 min

photo credit: B Rosen

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 wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.