On Mental Blocks & What It Means To Really Listen

One of the problems that arise when listening to others, as David Bohm wrote in his exquisite work On Dialogue, is our belief ‘that one already is listening to the other person in a proper way’. It is always the other person who is misguided, isn’t it? It is the dangerously misplaced belief that we are doing something right (and not just when listening) that ‘blocks’ us from seeing how we might be doing it wrong, and therefore, improving through reflection.

David Bohm, physicist & philosopher

Similar to how we notice other people’s annoying habits, but rarely our own, the ‘block’ which Bohm details, is an ‘insensitivity of anaesthesia about one’s own contradictions’. For example, I am an atheist and my friend is a Christian. We are discussing God and I can plainly see that everything she says is filtered through the lens of her religious convictions. I find her reasoning limited and her judgment flawed. She passes over the difficult questions and answers a different one altogether. She hits mental walls where she cannot follow her own train of thought because it would lead her to contradict her basic position. She is unable to speak freely and therefore, her logic is often fallacious, and her answers often nonsensical. It is easy to see the blocks in another person and no awards are handed out for it. But what of my own? What of my blocks? My adherence to the non-existence of God will in turn lead to its own ‘blocks’ that while different, are no less problematic. The result is a conversation (if you can call it that) that traverses well-explored territory. Or, rather, it is two kings exploring their own territory behind high walls, neither seeing nor interested in what is on the other side. Neither person grows because neither person wishes to leave their position. Tracing the internal landscape of a ‘blocked’ individual, Bohm writes,

Whenever certain questions arise, there are fleeting sensations of fear, which push him away from consideration of these questions, and of pleasure, which attract his thoughts and cause them to be occupied with other questions. So one is able to keep away from whatever it is that he thinks may disturb him. And as a result, he can be subtly defending his own ideas, when he supposes that he is really listening to what other people have to say.[i]

And how many weird uncles or overly zealous friends have we spoken to who, while thinking themselves as good listeners genuinely concerned about what you have to say, are nevertheless busy defending their own ideas, not taking the time to actually hear what you are saying?

The block arises when become more focused on defending a position than inquiring into the truth. Of course, we will never say this. More likely, we already believe our position to be the truth, which amounts to the same thing.

When we are busy defending our position (vaccines cause autism, climate change is a left-wing scam), we lose the ability to speak freely. We become committed to a stance that disallows the creative and free flow of meaning that is at the heart of communication. In defending a position, we stop ourselves from growing and learning anything and merely experience repetitions of the same old thoughts. Bohm continues,

Communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for. If, however, two people merely want to convey certain ideas or points of view to each other, as if these were items of information, then they must inevitably fail to meet. For each will hear the other through the screen of his own thoughts, which he tends to maintain and defend, regardless of whether or not they are true or coherent.[ii]

If we could, only for a moment, drop our own prejudices, assumptions and preconceived beliefs, we may come across something entirely new, fresh and interesting. Of course, we may not. We might be talking to a very boring and simple person. But, at least, when we drop our position, we open up the space for this to occur, and that is something that would not have happened otherwise if we were just busy defending ourselves.

Despite what we may say to the contrary, we are not very good at listening. We are good at judging, discriminating, criticising, and comparing, but not listening. Listening involves a type of silence, not the silence of a mind waiting to speak, but of a mind receptive to what is being said; a mind both empathetic and understanding, working in good faith with others to try to discover the truth.

Real communication, as Carl Jung observed, involves not only sharing your beliefs, but sharing in the others’ too. You must fully identify with your partner in conversation. It is reminiscent of Gadamer’s art of conversation as “a process of coming to an understanding” and that therefore, “it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says”.[iii] If you are a pro-vaxxer, you must identify with the position of the anti-vaxxer. Why have they come to the position they have? Was it distrust in government, evidence of corruption in science, the links between research and big money? It is on these grounds, the ground of your partner’s point of view, that the conversation must be held. It is only with the quality of total listening, which demands identification with the other that we will begin to understand. It does not mean you must agree, but that at least now you understand why they form the position they do. It will, therefore, allow the conversation to proceed from a considerably more stable starting point. Hopefully, we will reach new understandings. It isn’t certain, nothing is, but it is worth trying.

Being a good listener is very similar to being a good friend and lover, because in each, you are a partner on a journey. If you make it all about yourself, it will fail. If you refuse to ever see the other’s point of view, it will fail. You are required to have empathy, understanding and importantly, love. Not love in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out and overcoming the fear of losing yourself. It is with these qualities that we will be able to overcome our blocks, become better listeners, and, in the process, become better friends and lovers too.

[i] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 4.

[ii] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 3.

[iii] Gadamer, H.G.G., 2013. Truth and Method. United States: Bloomsbury. 403.

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