Mindful Listening: Achieving Focus, Insight, and Understanding

A little over a year ago, three-year-old Mateo Beltran was featured in People magazine for what at first glance appears to be a YouTube video gone viral but what the magazine identified, instead, as an example of a “skillful debate.” People covered this child’s rising popularity online, a popularity due to his plaintive plea for–of all things–a cupcake. Such a plea relied on Mateo’s insistent direction to his mother to “Listen, Listen, Linda!” While many viewers and readers found this story adorable or funny, I immediately was drawn to it because of my own scholarly interest in rhetorical listening, a term which gained ground when Krista Ratcliffe published “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct’” in the journal College Composition and Communication in 1999. Since then, her scholarship on rhetorical listening has resonated among work by Wayne Booth, Cheryl Glenn, Andrea Lunsford, and others. In a world of constant communication, distraction, and disruption, listening has become nearly absent. I argue that listening can serve as a way to practice mindfulness if we treat mindfulness in three ways: (1) the practice of fixing our attention on one subject or one voice as a way to immerse ourselves in a perspective other than our own, (2) the process by which we arrive at new insights or ways of knowing, (3) the possibility of broadening our understanding, both of self and of others. In thinking of the mindful listener, I hope to show how this seemingly simple act of rhetorical listening possesses a great deal of pedagogical promise and a considerable amount of complexity. (Writer Virginia Heffernan sheds an interesting light on the definition and etymology of the term “mindfulness” in her article “The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness”).

The aforementioned video is amusing as we watch Mateo and his mother go back and forth in an obvious struggle for control and–more importantly–the cupcake. But what really hooked me was the irony: here was a 3-year-old demanding that his mother listen to him and, by extension, inviting the online world of YouTube to listen to him, as well. Many of us, particularly in today’s media driven world, often feel overwhelmed due to the endless demands for our attention (Michelle Veenstra has spoken to this subject previously in her blog post “Millennials and Mindfulness”). In a world where social media invites a multitude of connections, it is important to consider a recent article in which writer David Dudley observes, “We tweet, we text, we e-mail. Everybody’s chatting, but is anybody listening?” (63) My students would answer “no” since many of them have remarked over the years, “No one listens to anyone anymore.” Dudley goes on to cite author Daniel Menaker who recalls “the golden age of conversation in the preindustrial era, among the salons and coffeehouses of 18th-century Europe” when talking helped “to hone new ideas, soothe political passions, and generally weld together a civil society” (64). It seems almost paradoxical and perplexing to ask: If speaking has been and continues to be so highly prized, why isn’t listening?

In the People magazine story, writer Alex Heigl begins with a portrait of persuasion, one that even alludes to the film version To Kill a Mockingbird: “You’re looking at a future star lawyer. Three-year-old Mateo Beltran wanted some cupcakes, and didn’t get them. That’s the genesis of the greatest courtroom performance since Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch.” Two points become apparent in this piece: (1) Heigl identifies the traditional argument structure (largely dominated by appeals to logos) at the core of this exchange between Mateo and his mother, an argument structure which limits listening even as it beseeches it; and (2) Mateo’s injunction “to listen” is explicitly linked to the way he attempts to persuade his audience, thereby signaling a clear rhetorical act. Most of assume we know how to listen, but we don’t…at least not in the way that would qualify as mindful listening. Ratcliffe explains how “the dominant trend in our field has been to follow the lead of popular culture and naturalize listening—to assume it is something that everyone does but no one need study” [my italics] (196).

To listen as a deliberate rhetorical act is a way to practice mindfulness because it focuses our attention, it allows us to identify meaning and a clearer understanding of the issue with which we are engaged, and it invites a dialogic exchange, a back-and-forth that is often absent in traditional or monologic arguments. Listening invites us to empathize with others as we place ourselves in the speaker’s shoes and attempt to imagine what issue they’re facing, what position they hold, what perspective they speak from. Ultimately, I define the mindful listener as reflective, inquisitive, and curious; he considers first, asks questions second, and responds last, if at all. His over-arching goal is to understand other positions and interests cooperatively, not to aggressively convince his audience that his position is right.

The composition classroom is conducive to developing these skills of self-reflection, critical and sustained inquiry, and intellectual curiosity. Mindful listening fixes the listening-oriented writer’s attention on a particular task (to accomplish something—to answer the question “what should we do?”) while considering a variety of claims and sifting through them for the best possible solution, outcome, or course of action. Such listening distances the writer from hot-tempered reactions, impulsive shouting, and antagonizing tactics. Real listening, as Wayne Booth urges, produces the kind of rhetoric that relies on “the art of removing misunderstanding” (379). Once misunderstanding has been reduced or eliminated, we might imagine the emergence of a clearer appreciation of the issue at hand. Ratcliffe defines this kind of understanding as “standing under—consciously standing under discourses that surround us and others, while consciously acknowledging all our particular and fluid standpoints. Standing under discourses means letting discourses wash over, through, and around us and then letting them lie there to inform our politics and ethics” (205). Mindful listening shifts power dynamics from an assertive kind of persuasion (the kind we see in Atticus Finch) to the task of gaining clarity. Further, developing the ability to listen closely paves the way for our increased ability “to offer a response that will in turn be listened to” (Booth 379).

Mindful listening also entails assenting to the other person you are arguing with; it does not overtly require a subservience to disappointing compromise. Instead, it leads us to the question: “When should I assent to your argument, your case, your claims, and when should I go on resisting…?” (Booth 379) In other words, when should I listen as a way to open myself up to the possibility of changing my mind, of gaining new insights, of seeing the world from a more thoughtful and open perspective? Thus, a “rhetoric of assent”—supported by moves from Rogerian rhetoric—positions listening as a way to open one’s mind instead of closing it off. Mindful listening becomes an ethical goal at the heart of deliberative discourse, whereby the end result is not to change another’s mind and not to just simply understand the other person’s position; the end result—which is still part of Rogerian rhetoric’s ongoing process—is to demonstrate a “nonjudgmental acceptance of the other person’s feelings” (Coe 88). Perhaps listening is not the only way to achieve this acceptance, but it is certainly one of the best ways that we are capable of as humans. And if mindful listening is a way to remind ourselves that we are human, then it behooves us to “listen” even if we laugh along to Mateo.

My question to readers, is, if you teach writing, do you incorporate the practice of listening–either implicitly or explicitly–alongside the teaching of argument?

-Kristina Fennelly (fennelly@kutztown.edu)

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. “Blind Skepticism versus a Rhetoric of Assent.” College English 67.4

(2005): 378-388.

—. The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden:

Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Coe, Richard M. “Classical and Rogerian Persuasion.” Rogerian Perspectives:

Collaborative Rhetoric for Oral and Written Communication. Ed. Nathaniel

Teich. Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991. 83-108.

Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code

of Cross-Cultural Conduct.’” College Composition and Communication 51.2

(1999): 195-224.

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