Already Listening

By Jim Selman | Bio


There is a phenomenon I point to in my work called “already listening”. This is akin to the ‘little voice’ in our heads that goes on and on about everything. It is our internal and automatic ‘judgment muscle’. It is called already listening because it is what we bring to a conversation before anyone speaks. It is the “pre” filter that is always organizing what we think. It is not the same as hearing. We can all hear the same thing, but not ‘listen’ the same thing. Already listening is mostly cultural and always historical—it is based on our past.  

Already listening isn’t good or bad, but when we are unconscious about it, we get trapped thinking that what we ‘hear’ is actually what was said. We begin to believe in the infallibility of our ‘little voice’ and get ‘hooked’ (or have our buttons pushed) by things that people say to us. Even what other people say to other people can hook us. Have you ever been embarrassed by something someone said that had nothing to do with you? Already listening is the phenomenon that triggers our moods and also what provokes our reaction to circumstances. It is always present whether we like it or not.

All stereotypes are based in our already listening of other people or situations. For example, in my recent post called “Family Conversation”, I said some things about my family in Texas as an example, but that appeared to my oldest daughter as my stereotyping Texans. I apologized and said this wasn’t my intention. As the saying goes, ‘some of my best friends…’. But the point is that we all do generalize and have preconceptions of each other. Whether the stereotypes are liberals or conservatives, ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’, or more deeply held prejudices, it is all based in an interpretation about the ‘other’ AS IF THE INTERPRETATION WAS TRUE. The difference between an interpretation and a stereotype is that we believe the stereotype is true and are blind to our responsibility in how we perceive and relate to our environment.

As we grow older, it is very easy to fall into this trap of believing our own points of view to the extent we create divisions between ourselves and others. If we want to remain engaged in life and participate as elders in our communities, we must be very conscious that experience and knowledge does not entitle us to speaking ‘truth’. Our points of view may be more grounded because of our experience, but are no more or less true than the points of view of the young.

Collaboration depends upon being able to listen generously to each other and come from a willingness to see the other’s point of view. The more experienced and perhaps enlightened we are, the more we are called to be even more diligent and responsible in this regard. If we don’t listen generously and if we aren’t committed to the possibility that we are blind to what others say or have to contribute, then we will inevitably and appropriately be marginalized and dismissed as closed and inflexible. Our ‘wisdom’ will become wearisome and we will reinforce the stereotypes that many have for older persons. People will be ‘already listening’ that we have nothing new to say and are intolerant of the young.

For my own already listening and blindness, I apologize and promise to continue to pay attention and work to listen even more generously in the future.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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