The Art of Listening
Communication is an art form. When we listen deeply, we feel each other and are less isolated. Through language and sound we can cross the divide of separateness, opening the heart.
I believe listening to music is a great way to train ourselves in the art of communicating with others. The act of listening involves many parts of the brain including those involved with thought, emotions, movement, and sensations. When you find a piece of music that opens your heart notice how you feel. Perhaps you find it has the power to evoke emotions, strengthen your resilience, and awaken a profound sense of interconnectedness. Music can bridge the gap; inviting us to bring the open, vulnerable self into connection with another.
“What if we listen to each other in the same way that we experience music? Listening as an art form awakens profound experiences of the self and soul offering a portal that can awaken a transformational experience of connection to others and the world.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Third Ear
In my office I have a book, written by psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, entitled “Listening with The Third Ear” (1948). Reik discusses the importance of listening for the emotional meanings conveyed by the speaker and the ability to hear what is not being said. He asks that we explore the tone of voice, the inflection, and pay attention to the silence and pauses between words and phrases. Listening with the third ear is dependent upon your ability to listen to yourself; your emotions and sensations. In other words, your inner responses deepen your understanding of what someone is saying. Your sensations are cues to the emotions that are being expressed. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was purported to have the maxim “know thyself” inscribed on the façade. By knowing yourself, you have the tools necessary to understand others.
How do you feel when you are understood? When is the last time that you experienced a connection with another who knew what you were trying to say even though you couldn’t get the words out? Recently I had one of those moments on the phone with a good friend who could hear the exhaustion in my voice and reflected how tired I sounded. This was unrelated to the content of the story I was sharing but resulted in my feeling deeply connected and appreciative of her presence. There is a tremendous comfort that occurs in those moments; an almost effortless communication and experience of being understood.
Touched by Sound
When I was fifteen I stood among hundreds of other musicians from around New York state in the Saratoga Springs performing arts center. We spent the summer sitting through music theory instruction, practicing our scales, strengthening our vocal instruments, and standing in the heat for seemingly never-ending rehearsals preparing for this concert. All of this work culminated in one moment as our voices rose to the climactic crescendo. Tears streamed down my face as I lost myself into the sound, to the sensations, and to the opening of my heart.
I frequently have moments when music touches my soul. Sometimes, I am alone in my car singing along to my favorite song on the radio or in yoga class as we collectively chant the sound of OM and pause in the resonating silence that follows. Just last week in choir rehearsal goose bumps rose on my arms as our many voices culminated into one unified sound. Not only could we hear it, we could feel it. Our choir director urged us (and I urge you) to listen to a Radiolab episode with Jad Abumrad on the topic of Musical Language which describes the science behind how sound can move us in profound ways. The program described how sound consists of waves that vibrate the air, travel into your eardrum, move a few small bones, disturb the fluid of your inner ear, bend tiny hair cells, and charge molecules which create electric patterns within your brain. This creates feelings and sensations in your body, leading to an emotional experience.
To better understand the science behind how music connects us, researchers looked at the effects of singing in unison with pulse monitors attached to the singers ears. The singer’s heart rates slowed down and produced a calming effect which was not surprising given the prolonged exhales. What was quite astonishing, however, was that in very little time the singer’s heart rates became synchronized into a shared rhythm guided by the music itself; a process associated with shared spiritual experience. Here, I concur with the words of Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Music has the power to do some amazing things. The moving documentary, Alive Inside, explores music’s ability to revitalize people with Alzheimer’s disease when medications fail. Music & Memory director, Dan Cohen, discovered that when patients listen to iPods loaded with personalized music they awaken, as if from a deep sleep, restoring a sense of self. The documentary and this YouTube video of Henry’s response to Cab Calloway, helped fund the organization to bring therapeutic music listening programs to nursing homes, allowing patients and their loved ones to reconnect as memories are reawakened. We are all alive inside. Can you find ways for music reawaken your soul?
Music Attunes Us
Listening to music is a great way to train ourselves in the art of communicating with others. Research suggests that music is one of the most powerful ways to wake up our emotions. The act of listening to involves many parts of the brain including both left and right hemispheres, the amygdala which processes emotion, the cerebellum involved with movement, the sensory cortex responsible for awareness of bodily sensations, and the hippocampus responsible for memory. Next time you put on a favorite piece of music try the following meditation. Listen with curiosity. With beginner’s mind explore this song as if listening to music for the very first time. Tune into your body sensations, notice your memories, explore your impulses to move, and notice your emotional responses. When you find a piece of music that opens your heart notice how you feel towards others.
Communication From the Heart
What if we listen to each other in the same way that we experience music? The musical meditation suggested above can adapted to a mindful approach to listening to each other. Here are several keys to realizing the Heart when communicating:
- Prepare yourself: Approach mindful listening as if you are about to sit down for a first class concert. Be honest with yourself. Notice if your thoughts are about your “to do” list or if you have the urge to look at your phone. Is this a good time to really listen? If not identify a better time and agree to come back. When you are ready, take a deep breath and settle into your seat.
- Attune: Don’t respond right away. Be patient. Check in with how you feel as you listen. Savor the experience and notice what is evoked within you. What is occurring within your body and your emotions as you allow the words to sink in.
- Open your third ear: Listen for what has not been said. Explore the tone of voice. Is there a harmonious feeling or perhaps you notice dissonance. Pay attention to the silence and pauses between words and phrases. Sometimes our attuned listening occurs when we take the time to notice other cues but not saying directly.
- Speak from your heart: When you offer back your understanding of what you heard allow yourself to reflect simple offerings from your heart about when you felt and imagine the other is feeling. What tone can you offer that might match the melody? What honors discordance? What might bring resolution?
- Listen for feedback: You will know if you were accurate in your understanding by the response you get. When you get it right you will most likely have encouraged further sharing and expression; the music will play on. You will likely see a softening and a lessening of tension. If you are unsure you can always ask, “Did I understand you correctly?” When we don’t listen well we most often will hear the response, “you don’t understand!” or in the worst case scenario they will storm off in a thunderous rage.
- Fine tune: If you didn’t get it right the first time around be patient with yourself. Offer to listen again when you feel ready. Acknowledge that you didn’t get it right the first time and that you are investing in listening to what they have to say. Staying engaged in the process is one of the best was to communicate that we care.
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- Parenting Children with Big Emotions
- Enhance your Emotional Intelligence
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.