People need to be listened to. Sounds so simple. But it's not. If it was, it would happen all the time. It doesn't! The conditions of proper listening are pretty hard to come by. It's not simply a case of matching a speaker to a pair of ears. The listening subject must be open, and ready to wait. For how long, who knows? The speaker may have a lot to say. Or very little to say, but take a long time saying it. Real listening requires time. It also requires a postponement of willing. It cannot occur when a listener is imposing his or her own will or values. Nor can it occur when an already-known concept is simply "listened out for." The listener must be prepared to hear things that are completely alien and unfamiliar, things for which he/she has no answer or explanation, no corresponding analogue in his or her own lived experience.

If this openness is missing, not only can real listening not occur, but real expression is pretty hard, too. If a speaker begins a conversation with something like "I'm feeling down," for example, and a listener follows with a habitual response like "you've got nothing to be down about," immediately all the channels opened by such an utterance are closed. The speaker senses the listener's mind is already made up about anything that might follow, and the possibility for really developing the thought is impacted. Of course, it was probably never "feeling down" he/she wanted to talk about. In all likelihood, this was just a stepping stone to something deeper and significantly harder to verbalize. We tend to employ safe, familiar concepts which have a kind of "guaranteed resonance," in order to start tackling the things which are hardest to talk about, and of which we ourselves are often not fully cognizant.

But it is precisely this "safety" which produces the pitfall. Familiar patterns of speech give way to familiar patterns of response. As soon as a recognizable shape or concept appears, "closure" logically follows, and the unformed expression retreats into oblivion. Oblivion means "the state of being forgotten." The more this scenario plays itself out, the less inclined we are to even recognize feelings and concepts that exist beyond these safe, familiar boundaries. If we cannot talk about them, we stop seeing them. In short, a listener's "closure" can very quickly become a speaker's "closure." And although "closure" can be a comforting thing, it is not always helpful, or reached at the right moment.

It helps to understand that speech is a process. We rarely begin with a perfectly formed concept and then proceed to elucidate it effortlessly. In fact, we rarely have a thought that is simply verbal. Thought involves not only words, but also recollections (both lucid and hazy) of colours, shapes, sounds, moods, feelings, smells, tactile memories, etc., all at once. Translating this complex, multi-faceted experience into mere words is never straightfoward, and is rarely something we can do successfully without a significant number of rehearsals, failed attempts and revisions. This is the process we carry out in real time as we attempt to communicate what we are thinking. This is the process a listener must be aware of.

If I don't know exactly what I'm thinking or feeling or conceptualizing, but instinctively try to express it anyway, of course its first appearance is going be the most conventional, "normal" and recognizable of all its possible appearances; I am attempting to fit it into the logic of language, so of course my first recourse will be familar linguistic conventions. But closure is the last thing I need at this point. Now, more than ever, what I need is the space to develop, expand and revise.

This should not (and need not) be about condemning the listener to sit in silence while the speaker works out the details of his or her personal discovery. It is about a fluid, dynamic and vital process of expression, in which we all might participate as both speakers and listeners.

© Alex Carpenter, 2009