Scattered Attention

How do we listen closely from a distance?

Recently, I signed up to become a volunteer for an organization that provides community services to women. Before I could start helping anyone, I had to attend a two-day training workshop on “active listening.” The women who used the center’s services, the coordinator told us, as she distributed corpulent black binders, were often trying to make major changes in their lives, and they didn’t necessarily have anyone to cheer them on. The eight other volunteers and I received a list of emotional needs most people have: to feel acknowledged, capable, respected, valued, loved. Each of us would become a dedicated ear — for the hour per week that we would be meeting with our assigned client, she would be our sun and our stars, the central dot in the universe from which everything else flowed.

Scanning the headings and subheadings, I wondered how complicated listening could really be. People often tell me I’m a good listener, which I’ve always taken as a back-handed compliment; it sounds like a role for a loyal golden retriever. The advice in our booklets seemed common sense, but as I read it over, I replayed some of my recent conversations with flashes of uncomfortable recognition: don’t interrupt, don’t attempt to finish the speaker’s sentences, don’t give unsolicited advice, focus on the content of what the person has to say rather than the manner in which they say it. In the UK in the 1980s, psychologist Gerard Egan postulated that to listen effectively, the listener had to cultivate body movements that promoted open dialogue. He came up with the acronym SOLER: Sit straight; Open posture; Lean forward; Eye contact; and Relax. A good listening face is like a Victorian parlour: inviting without being showy.

On the second day of our training session, we were broken into pairs: one person would tell a story, and the other would empty their face of all expression. My partner was planning her wedding, she told me; she described trying on her wedding dress as I looked on with dead eyes. They would be getting married in Puerto Rico, she told me, where her boyfriend was from; I stared into her face, emanating waves of nihilism. Last night, she said, they had practiced their first dance as a married couple; I imagined corpses hanging from the corners of my mouth by their fingers. We both felt terrible.

If formerly private acts of self-disclosure are increasingly being performed in public, formerly private acts of listening have become public as well

My worst exercise was one that involved actually listening and responding to another person talk about a recent experience that mattered to them. My partner was a volunteer originally from Nigeria. She had been quiet in the chatty group of volunteers, and the experience she chose to tell me about was a recent phone call with a friend in the U.S. Our training weekend took place right after the Muslim ban, and the woman told me her friend was frightened. People had different opinions about the ban, she said calmly. I broke in to tell her that she should feel comfortable talking about it openly with me, because of course I was against it. “You should feel free to express anger,” I told her.

When we came back into the larger group to discuss how our conversations had gone, I mentioned that I had found it hard simply to listen as my partner talked about such an upsetting issue. Well, yes, the coordinator said. It could be difficult. But I should think about why I was so keen to express my own feelings about the ban. Was I more interested in proving to my partner that I was a good person than I was in listening to her?

After the training weekend, I thought a lot about my failings as a listener. It turned out to be harder than I expected not to make my listening somehow about myself. At one point, another volunteer turned to me and said, “Oh god — I just realized I never listen to my kids.” I wondered how to apply some of the lessons I had learned to other relationships in my life. Most days, I listen with my eyes and speak with my fingertips. Social networks allow me a degree of exposure to other people’s feelings that has never before been possible, and the emotional content of my days has never been higher. In a 10-minute scroll, I hear people celebrating the publication of their newest poetry collections, remembering the first time they met their husbands, fearing the advances of strange men, discussing the non-accreditation of Inuit school board curricula by Quebec’s provincial government, protesting changes to the Affordable Care Act, and joking about a steamed pudding dessert called Aunty’s Spotted Dick.

Everyone has that one person they don’t know well (or at all) who is sure to like or comment on their every post. Too much unreciprocal attention is the close-talking of the internet — even though we’re at the same party, there are still boundaries we may not even know we’re breaching. A private message is like drawing someone into a quiet corner; commenting on a raucous thread can feel like putting on lipstick at a shared mirror in the party’s bathroom.

In this context, what does it mean to be a good listener? In discussions of serious emotional or political matters, public acts of listening need to be demonstrative so that speakers know someone is listening, but the very conspicuousness required threatens to blow up into performativity. Being seen to be listening not only fails to guarantee authentic listening, it can become the opposite: a way of continuing to center the listener rather than the speaker. Listening done in public, and at a remove, gives us access to a wealth of emotional information; how and whether we show our receptivity can give rise to meaningful connection or can become listening™ — a false front that obscures a continued focus on ourselves.

In an exercise for learning to gauge different people’s levels of comfort with physical proximity, the other volunteers and I stood in two lines and moved slowly towards each other. In another designed to highlight the gap between what we say and what someone else hears, we were given cards with shapes on them and told to describe the shapes well enough for our partners to draw them. “Put your pencil at the top,” I said, “then move it to the right and down, making a sort of semi-circle that ends in a narrowed tip. Then do the same thing on the other side and join up both ends.” One of my listeners managed to deduce a heart shape; the other’s paper showed an indecisive oblong.

Our coordinator had asked us to fill in a diagram with concentric circles representing the emotional distances between ourselves and other people: the first tight circle was populated by the people we felt closest to, and the furthest, widest one was for people we didn’t know at all. Listening over social media requires the ability to inhabit all of these rings at once, and to respond as each of these manifold layers of intimacy requires. Some people use these spaces for a kind of open journaling, confiding experiences they may never have shared face-to-face. One-on-one engagement forms the basis of our idea of friendship, but our idea of community is based on public sharing. If formerly private acts of self-disclosure are increasingly being performed in public, formerly private acts of listening have become public as well.

A standard listening workshop like the one I did, and the ones taking place right now at countless workplaces, non-profits, and parenting seminars, draws on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, and later research in the Rogerian tradition. In 1954, Rogers published a book with the dimestore thriller name, The Case of Mrs. Oak. Rogers and Mrs. Oak did become something like a team of detectives over the course of their therapy sessions, fumbling together towards an elucidation of a new method of listening. In the early 1950s, the conventional understanding of psychotherapy was that patients would describe their feelings, and then therapists would tell them what was wrong with them. Rogers believed in a new approach and a new kind of listener: someone who would help the person being listened to arrive at a holistic experience of herself and her personality. Sometime during Mrs. Oak’s 30th session, Rogers records, they had the following exchange:

CLIENT: Well, I made a very remarkable discovery. I know it’s – (laughs) I found out that you actually care how this thing goes. (Both laugh) It gave me the feeling, it’s sort of well – “maybe I’ll let you get in the act,” sort of thing … I mean – but it suddenly dawned on me that in the – client-counselor kind of thing, you actually care what happens to this thing. And it was a revelation, a – not that. That doesn’t describe it. It was a – well, the closest I can come to it is a kind of relaxation, a – not a letting down, but a – (pause) more of a straightening out without tension if that means anything. I don’t know.

THERAPIST: Sounds as though it isn’t as though this was a new idea, but it was a new experience of really feeling that I did care and if I get the rest of that, sort of a willingness on your part to let me care.


Rogers’ responses are peppered with this kind of formulation — “It sounds as though”; “Let’s see if I can get some of that”; “In other words.” He is repeating back to her (mirroring, as it later came to be called) what she has said, to check if his understanding is correct. They had discovered together, he wrote, that the best way to help someone was not to tell her what to do or explain to her what you saw as the root of her problems; it was to be on her side, and to listen as she engaged in the search for her true self.

The design of online spaces seems to work against the intimacy of effective listening. The immediate tools available for broadcasting my reactions have button faces: I can like or love, feel sad or angry, laugh or be shocked. But these reactions are about naming and sharing my own emotions. They implicitly encourage me to respond by making a public declaration of my sensitivity to the joys or sorrows of others. This framing threatens to make me into the kind of person I most distrust: the kind of person who is always telling people what kind of person they are.

The design of online spaces implicitly encourages me to make a public declaration of my sensitivity to others, threatening to make me the kind of person who always tells people what kind of person they are

And yet all of us have come to know how a lack of response — when a post or tweet vanishes unremarked into the void — feels like negation. It can make you feel lonelier than you did before you spoke. Hitting “like” in response to a comment on your wall is the equivalent of making eye contact with someone who is talking to you. Amplifying the voices of others by retweeting or reposting their content seems better than simply registering your emotional reaction to their speech. But still, the personal brand-building that, however unintentionally, can’t help but accompany these demonstrations of solidarity can make them feel less genuine. Mirroring someone’s feelings can start to feel like appropriating them.

Tellingly, the most visible research into ways of digitally replicating the non-verbal cues associated with listening has come out of the brand management sector. In 2013, Ragan, a corporate communications publisher, ran an article on their site by Allison Stadd (a longtime food marketing strategist, Stadd is currently the director of brand marketing at Sweetgreen, a “fast casual” restaurant chain whose Kendrick Lamar-themed salad, “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe,” won lavish press attention in 2014). Stadd wrote about how companies could humanize their monitoring of brand mentions online. Marketers needed to stay attuned to customers so they can leverage their free insights and engage them in dialogue. “Twitter,” Stadd wrote, “is a rich resource for such monitoring — ‘listening’ in current parlance.”

The article offers digital analogues for active listening techniques. On making the best practice of open body language work on Twitter, Stadd writes, “One way I can tell off the bat if a brand is a good social listener is through a quick glance at their Twitter stream. If there is not a single tweet starting with an @ mention of another tweep, implying that the entire stream is composed of ‘pushed’ content, chances are, the brand or business is talking at you more than with you.” In assessing the non-verbal cues being broadcast by the speaker, Stadd wrote, “The Twitter equivalent of hand gestures, facial expressions, and the like are the accoutrements to tweets. Think about links, attached photos, videos, and gifs, and the conversational context in which tweets are happening.”

In a staff post entitled, “Three Keys to Smarter Marketing Through Active Listening,” the advertising agency Woodruff Sweitzer explains the difference between “social monitoring” and “social listening” with what they assure us is becoming an old adage: “Monitoring sees trees. Listening sees the forest.” They recommend sifting through what people are saying on social media to identify the pain points associated with your brand, and looking for signs that someone might have potential as a brand ambassador. In 2014, in an article entitled, “Listen, Learn, Earn: Social Listening How-To,” a writer for the brand consultant agency We Are Social admonished, “when it comes to product-related updates, barely one in 10 mentions a specific brand. In other words, if we’re only tracking brand names, we’re missing 90 percent of the potential value; we need to listen out for a broader range of conversations that will help us to gain richer insights into purchase moments, usage occasions, and subsequent emotions.”

The study of listening is rife with possibilities for misuse. In response to data from psychology studies, door-to-door salespeople were often schooled to synchronize their breathing with that of their potential buyers. And Carl Rogers was briefly employed by the CIA to analyze Kruschev’s character and advise the U.S. government on how a deeper understanding of the Russian leader as a person could be used against him. Surveillance is another form of weaponized listening. If knowledge is power, the intimate knowledge that comes with sustained attention to another person’s thoughts, feelings, and character can easily be turned into an instrument of control. In October of 2016, the ACLU reported that a CIA-funded tool called Geofeedia was being used by law enforcement to track Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts during the protests after the death of Freddie Gray, sometimes even using facial recognition software to link people photographed protesting with Black Lives Matter to outstanding warrants. Although social media networks quickly blocked Geofeedia from their sites, in an article at The Verge, Russell Brandom pointed out the impossibility of keeping law enforcement from using the same kind of social media listening as the marketing sector: “If Pepsi can use a tool to find disgruntled Coke fans, why can’t police use the same tool to look for rioters and fugitives?”

For most of us, our online world is suffused with an invisible gradient: we’re vaguely aware of who is likely to comment on our posts or tweets, who is likely to acknowledge them, and who may see them. Tweets, status updates, public conversations between other people, and private messages all carry different emotional loads and imply different levels of intimacy. When I read a tweet by an indigenous activist saying, for example, “We need to talk about how to pass on our languages to our children,” I know I’m not the “we” she means. I view these types of conversation, when held on a public forum, as the equivalent of attending a panel discussion — my job is to keep my mouth shut and learn. Much of what we do on social media is not so much listening as listening in; digital forums make it possible for us to overhear conversations that our real life social networks don’t provide. A comment written on my wall versus a private message also make different statements about what level of engagement a speaker wants from me, and about how intimate they want our conversation to be.

One of the great advantages of communication at a distance is the physical impossibility of interruption

Not all listening is meant to be equivalent, and while Rogerian listening techniques are designed to create a specific kind of intimacy, for many interactions, feeling closer to someone is a by-product rather than the goal. Twitter, in particular, runs on inductive reasoning — its users speak such a high-context language that if we aren’t all reading the same news stories it can be impossible to understand what people are talking about. Twitter users often seem to be communicating less that they are listening to each other than that they are engaged in a collective act of listening to the broader culture. Active listening on Twitter is about crafting tweets that demonstrate participation, either in news stories and issues of the day, or in a tonal zeitgeist.

The box-ticking, performative element of public listening on social networks may mean that many of us are overestimating our readiness to participate in meaningful dialogue about some of the difficult issues being discussed. It takes so little effort to click “like” on a post or article sharing a complex emotional and/or political issue that we may confuse these gestures of affirmation with true engagement. Genuine listening isn’t just nodding along or repeating buzzwords. It’s one thing to be able to say “cultural genocide.” It’s another to come to grips with the chasm between someone who has lived this experience and someone who has not.

Rogerian listening was controversial in its day, not because it seemed intrusive, but because it didn’t seem intrusive enough. A famous psychiatry in-joke has a Rogerian therapist repeating back a depressed patient’s suicidal thoughts until the patient jumps out the window, at which point the therapist empathically repeats, “Splat.” Social media has increasingly become a space in which people share their most painful experiences; it may be that the appropriate response is to work harder to change the noxious aspects of society that cause these experiences.

Ultimately, good listening means figuring out what, if anything, the speaker is asking for, and whether you are the right person to offer it. It’s obnoxious to talk to someone as if you think you’re their therapist, and it can reinforce existing hierarchies when a white listener (like me) publicly tells a person of color that their voice is important — assigning value to someone’s expression can imply that my recognition is necessary for that value to exist. “Listening” without sensitivity or invitation can make a person feel less heard, not more.

Other people’s pain can make us uncomfortable, but this discomfort tends to come from an uncertainty about what to do rather than a lack of caring. Some speakers ask for what they want; sometimes the question solves itself with a simple, “Having a shitty day, please send baby goat pics.” Over the course of the past 10 years, I’ve been privy to several gender transitions online, when it has seemed clear that the person undergoing change needs their new identity to be seen and heard. I don’t react to every post or picture, but I try to acknowledge major shifts in feeling being expressed — it seems important to register the good and bad days that come with difficult changes.

One of the principles of active listening we discussed in the workshop was not to try to fit people into unchanging profiles, but instead to allow the person to be inconsistent or to express a range of emotions on a subject. On social networks where our views of each other are both highly crafted and necessarily partial, it can be easy to slot each other into boxes and read all kinds of unintended messages into what is being said. For genuine listening to occur, we have to be able to allow each other to be imperfect and to express ourselves imperfectly.

In significant ways, the disembodied space in which I receive online communications can enhance my ability to follow the rules of effective listening. One of the great advantages of communication at a distance — a quality perhaps more freeing than almost anything else about online interaction — is the physical impossibility of interruption. On Facebook especially, where there is no character limit, the screen acts as a fiercely authoritative mediator, commanding silence until the speaker reaches the end of what they’d like to say. The distribution of attention is by no means equal, but anyone may unburden themselves of their greatest and smallest feelings for however long they wish.

In his 1964 book On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers spends a surprising amount of time talking about how before he could be an effective listener for someone, he had to come to terms with how what that person was saying made him feel. At first, he had tried to present a positive face to his clients no matter what they said, in order to make them feel safe confiding in him. “But experience drove home the fact that to act consistently acceptant, for example, if in fact I was feeling annoyed or skeptical or some other non-acceptant feeling, was certain in the long run to be perceived as inconsistent or untrustworthy. I have come to recognize that being trustworthy does not demand that I be rigidly consistent but that I be dependably real.”

Before turning to the study of psychology, Rogers planned to enter the ministry. There remains something pastoral about his attentions to his clients, an awareness of the deep mystery at the heart of what it means to be human. He was willing to be changed by these conversations as much as his clients were changed by the time they spent with him. In 1968, Rogers left his job at a Californian non-profit to found an ongoing venture: the Center for Studies of the Person. Listening may seem to be a question of putting oneself aside, but, paradoxically, it also demands a disciplined attention to oneself. In both our online and offline lives, we are constantly engaged in building, questioning, and discovering who we are. With varying degrees of awareness, we are all engaged in the same project, and our social spaces sometimes roil with shared feelings of loneliness and fear as we grapple with the forces, within and without, that prevent us from becoming ourselves. Being dependably real with and for each other means acknowledging that sometimes our listening is flawed.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.