Why creating a habit of hearing is critical for understanding “the other”

Form a custom of listening before distributing opinion

You read it on this website before: Many people in “Western” cultures have forgotten or unlearned to listen to each other. This is not only the case when debating politics, it is also true for encounters across cultures. It’s certainly so when politics and culture meet. And John Wykoff will tell you it is best addressed by developing a habit of hearing. 

John.WykoffRecently I had a chance to meet and chat with John, who works as assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University in Cleveland, TN and who – in collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne – wrote Now We Belong, a choral work about the United States’ immigrant identity, which was commissioned for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.
Wykoff was asked to contribute his composition long before the election and whether or not he supports the results of America’s vote is irrelevant. In an article for New Music Box John argues that composers have the ability (and responsibility) to nourish a listening culture. One which meets new ideas with open ears and open minds. 

In a world full of shouting and hyperbole, who listens?

“Ours is an age of loudness and of speech,” Wykoff writes. “It is a day of talking, telling, saying, shouting. But who is listening? Who leads with the ear?” While Wykoff speaks specifically to the music community, his point does have a more universal appeal: 

“When there is so much ado over the number of messengers and the volume of their voices, but not the content of their message, is that not a tacit admission that no one, in fact, has heard what they said? Has our society lost its hearing?
Argument, not art, is the best tool for proving opinions. Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving. True, habits of thought and perception may lead to and flow from the convictions of the mind. But they also may be surprisingly at odds with them, as when someone honestly believes that no race is better than another, but has tacit habits of prejudicial suspicion. It is with mental habits, not mental convictions, that art is most effective for change.” 

Creating the habit of hearing may be taxing

One of the basic recommendations (rules?) for successful cross-cultural interactions is: Be quick to observe and slow to judge. Try to listen more, watch more, and speak less. This is particularly true for people from a Western cultural context, who often have a predisposition to offer their point of view before assessing the situation at hand. We aren’t necessarily born with this tendency. In most cases it’s a learned behavior. Establishing a new habit takes practice and committing to a listener’s behavior can be hard work. Especially when we’re exposed to unfamiliar and unexpected ways of doing things. The challenge of dealing with a foreign environment in a different culture is, in a way, like hearing music which isn’t “easy listening.”
“It has a way of beckoning you in, requiring much of you, and rewarding your efforts,” Wykoff says:

“It is also perplexing. You want to slow it down. You want to pick it apart. You want to discern how one element relates to another. You want to know what’s going on. You simply have to hear it again. And as you listen repeatedly, you may come to find that the piece only ‘makes sense’ insofar as you choose to put on ‘sense-making’ filters. You are forced to choose how you will listen to it, and forced to refresh your choice each time you listen again. The reward for your efforts is surely a measure of self-knowledge. You become more aware of your tacit filters­—the implicit ways you listen. You learn what you automatically listen for, and what you automatically ignore. By extension, it may cause you to consider the ‘sense-making’ filters through which you experience life’s barrage. It may even lead you to wonder what there is out in the world that you automatically ignore. Such self-knowledge is a sensible reward.”

Wykoff is aware of the limitations in his analogy:

To ‘hear’ strange music is not the same thing as to ‘hear’ a strange opinion. But to ‘hear’ a well-formed opinion probably involves comprehending one or more reasons, or at least motivations, and connecting them to some kind of a conclusion. The skills are different. I am aware of this, and I do not intend to fool anyone. I do not pretend that the skills for listening closely to new music will translate directly into skills for listening closely to a new opinion. However, even if the skills are not transferable, I suspect that the habit is.”

Whether we are listening to a taxing piece of music, whether we are confronted with a challenging mindset, or whether we are dealing with unfamiliar behaviors –  let’s practice a routine of attentive and active listening.


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