Ignis Fatuus

On Listening

Rethinking Value in Communication

By David Dick-Agnew

Out with a whimper
It’s not a blaze of glory
You look down from your temple
As people endeavor to make it a story
And chisel a marble word
But all is lost if it’s never heard ….

I’ll keep your dreams
You pay attention for me
As strange as it seems
I’d rather dissolve than have you ignore me ….

Congratulations,” MGMT

o start with, there’s the many powerful celebrities reduced to tears by a canny journalist.  There’s the millions of people who publish images and videos of themselves to the world—not for money, but in the hopes of a smattering of attention.   There’s the grown men and women paid to entertain us with their frustration.  Finally, there is the case of the Private First Class who risked life behind bars just so he could share his secret with a total stranger.  And then there’s the thing they all have in common—the all-too-human need to be heard.

n Barbara Walters’s 2008 memoir Audition, she writes of her interviews with Christopher Reeve, who granted Walters his first interview following the accident that left him quadriplegic.  She interviewed him repeatedly during his final years, with their last interview together taking place only 11 months before he died in 2003.

Reeve had pre-existing relationships with other journalists, perhaps even close personal relationships.  But when he had recovered from his accident enough to let the world hear his voice for the first time, it was to Walters—a journalist he had met only once, fleetingly—that he granted the exclusive.  Of all the  journalists Reeve could have spoken with to tell his story, why did he pick Walters, whom he barely knew?  In Walters’s words:

He had watched a great deal of television and seen many of my interviews during his hospitalization [and rehabilitation].   I seemed not to interrupt my subjects, he eventually told me.  This was important to him.  He could only talk for a few minutes at a time, because a tube in his throat was connected to a respirator that sent air into his lungs, and also released air over his vocal cords.  He could speak as long as the breath held.  Then he had to wait for the respirator to generate another breath before he could speak again.  It was a slow process, and the interviewer had to be patient.  Because I seemed to listen, Reeve chose me to be the person to whom he told his story.

In fact, Walters repeatedly (without hammering the point) credits her ability to listen as one of the things that has helped her succeed in journalism.  Her advice to interviewers: “The biggest mistake interviewers make is to be tied to their questions …. The next biggest mistake is not to listen.”  She implicitly links her ability to bring celebrities to tears with learning “when to be quiet and just listen.”  And later: “Asking the right questions has always been less important than listening to the answers.”

It might even seem like a trope, but what Walters is saying here is that the words themselves play less of a role in her process of interviewing than her ability to engage as a listener.  That is, what any subject needs is not just to be prompted to give the right information, but more importantly, to be given a receptacle into which to put it.

or his book Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman (no stranger to interviewing others) in turn interviewed two of the most pre-eminent interviewers working in America: Ira Glass (of  This American Life on NPR), and Errol Morris (director of The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and Standard Operating Procedure, among many other fine films).  He asked them about interviewing, in general, but particularly about why people consent to give interviews.

In the end, the closest any of the three can get to providing an answer is that there is some innate human characteristic, some subconscious mechanism, that—under the right circumstances—compels a person to talk.  As Klosterman puts it, “When asked a direct question, it’s human nature to respond.”  In Morris’s words, “There’s a very strong human desire to [talk.]“  And in Glass’s: “Sometimes I will be talking to journalism students and they will ask how I get people to open up to me, and the answer is that I’m legitimately curious about what those people are saying.  I honestly care about the stories they are telling.”

Speaking about the part of human nature that compels us to talk about our anxieties, Glass goes on to make a revealing comparison: the same force that can get people under the right circumstances to reveal themselves to a reporter is the same force at work in a therapy session—but more on that later.

n situations where an exchange is taking place—any type of exchange—it’s often revealing to apply an economic model.  In communication, information is being exchanged, and perhaps the rules of supply and demand can handily be applied to this exchange.  An obvious model presents itself: the speaker (the source of the information) is on the supply side of the equation, and the listener (the receiver of the information) on the demand side.

There’s an inherent logic to this; after all, a reader pays for for a book, and the author is paid to write.  A moviegoer pays to get into the theatre, and the producers, directors and actors are paid to create the film.  A concertgoer pays a musician to entertain her.  As in any economic transaction, the receiver pays for the thing that he or she consumes.

But this is, I think, a simplistic way of looking at communication.  If listening were just the act of consuming what’s being produced, then why does listening play such an important role in the art of interviewing?  Is there value in the act of listening itself?

In Human Listening, editor Russel Windes writes in the foreword, “We presume that to talk is to communicate, or to write is to communicate.  In fact, communication is a process that must include a message, a sender, and a receiver, and in most cases, a response by the receiver.”  The communication transaction, in other words, can’t exist without a listener.  If the speaker speaks only to his own detriment, and the listener is the sole beneficiary of the transaction, compensating the speaker monetarily, then perhaps it’s as simple as the above examples make it seem.  But how often is this the case?  Could the listener provide as much to the speaker as the speaker provides the listener?

ithin the television industry, there’s a saying: we’re not in the business of delivering entertainment to viewers.  We’re in the business of delivering viewers to advertisers.

This isn’t limited to television, however.  Anything reliant on advertising could be said to do the same: radio, magazines, and even good old-fashioned newspapers.  With the growth of the digital, advertising-based business models are more popular than ever, with most websites generating the bulk of their revenue through advertising.  For the owners of the medium, when you consume their product for free, you’re doing them a favor.  These media are clamoring for your attention—and by giving it to them, you make them richer.  In that sense, the listener is definitely on the supply side of the capitalist equation.  In a reversal of the earlier model, it is the speaker who essentially pays for an audience to listen.

But not all of the people working to provide this content are in it for the money.   Consider the case of YouTube.com.  A glut of material is available on the site—for free—more than anyone could ever watch.  As of May 2010, YouTube hosts over 120 million videos (over 600 years worth of programming), and attracts about 144 million unique viewers a month.  YouTube posts ads on the site, and makes upwards of  $200 million in revenue each year—but what possesses the millions of people who upload their videos to the site?

rom childhood through adolescence is a period when, by gaining knowledge about the world, and through practice, our ability to absorb and process information—the basis of listening—improves steadily.   But there are two components necessary for listening: the ability to hear and understand, and also the willingness to listen.  The first is useless without the second.

Repeated studies of listening comprehension in youth conducted throughout the 1950s demonstrated that children and young adults show measurable improvements in their ability to listen over periods as short as two years, starting during the earliest grades and extending into the college years.

Perhaps predictably, during the same period that our ability to listen improves, our willingness to listen plummets.  In one study, this was measured by having a teacher stop mid-lecture and quiz the students about what he or she had been talking about immediately before the interruption.  90% of first grade students could answer this correctly.  By second grade, the number had dropped to 80%.  By junior high, it was 44%, and among high school students, only 28% could demonstrate that they had been listening.  It should pointed out that this study was conducted in 1948, but while the trend may have changed, it is probably not in the direction of increased attention.

Even in the 1970s when Weaver wrote of this study, experts spoke of how “people in our culture are taught not to listen,” suggesting that “our entire culture conditions us not to listen but to talk.”  He later describes the “catharsis” of being able to “verbalize aloud to some human being something [one] wants to hear said.  In such cases, he does not want response or evaluation.  He does not even want the listener to tell his own troubles.  He simply wants to ‘get something off his chest,’ to think aloud so as to hear it himself.  Until he does that, he may not understand it clearly.”

There is also neurological evidence that when we have needs, we are primed to express them—but that when these needs go unmet for too long, the anxiety of confronting these needs actually creates a barrier to expression.  Another study, from Lauren Wispé and Nicholas Drambarean in 1953, established a significant link between unmet physical needs and the accessibility of related concepts to a speaker.  In this study, subjects were given 24 words to familiarize themselves with: 6 related to food, 6 related to drink, and 12 that were random.  Baseline reaction rates were established by putting one of these words on a screen and measuring the time it took for the subject to recognize it.

After fasting for 10 hours, the subjects were tested again.  This time, when the food- and drink-related words were flashed onscreen, reaction time dropped significantly.  The words having to do with food and drink became much more accessible to the subjects when they began to feel an intense need for the related concepts.

The fasting continued.  And after 24 hours without food or drink, the subjects underwent the same tests again.  But this time, instead of having their physical needs even more mentally present, they took far longer than the baseline measurement to identify the food and drink words.  After fasting for 10 hours, they could, in a few cases, recognize the words in a few hundredths of a second, but after fasting for 24 hours, it could take them up to a full second.  Neurologically speaking, this difference is enormous.  Most striking of all: through all of this, the reaction times for the random, non-food-related words never varied from the baseline measurement at all.

One interpretation of this is that a need brings a concept to mind, and makes it more accessible to the conscious—but an unmet need actually creates a barrier to conscious recognition.  In a sense, our minds are hardened against the things we lack.  Remember, the subjects were asked to identify the words on a screen; this is an act of expression, but foremost it is one of cognition—of listening.  Again, this is under lab conditions, but extrapolate this outside the study to daily life, and the implication is that if our emotional needs are not met, they become inaccessible, even to us.

There may be an evolutionary component to this.  It is clearly advantageous for a group of interdependent people to communicate their needs to one another; in so doing, they are more able to share resources, and divide up the burden of individuals’ needs to help those individuals cope.  If awareness of problems is spread throughout the group, they can collectively work to solve them, potentially preventing a problem from compounding and endangering the entire group.  The advantages of collective living—the foundation of any society—operate through mechanisms reliant on communication.

There’s evidence for an evolutionary counterpoint to this, as well.  A study released last year suggested that depression is not an aberrant or even disadvantageous condition—it may, in fact, be a tool for helping people confront seemingly intractable problems.  When people are depressed in the face of an unfortunate situation, they withdraw socially and lose interest in things that usually bring them pleasure; they fixate and ruminate on the issues plaguing them.  This can be an adaptive behavior if there is need for deeper understanding of the scope of a problem.  But on the other hand, some problems—not complex ones, but the unavoidable ones that frustrate us—drive us not to depression but to anger.  In the teeth of these situations, we don’t withdraw: we vent to anyone who will listen.

es, we all vent … but nobody does it better than a stand-up comic.  From Jerry Seinfeld’s sets on people’s irritating foibles, to Rick Mercer’s infamous rants, to Jon Stewart’s diatribes and Denis Leary’s vitriolic animadversions and Dennis Miller’s stream-of-consciousness brickbats and Lewis Black’s curmudgeonly, obsidional deconstructions of cultural insanity, the bread-and-butter of stand-up comedy is releasing the pent-up frustration induced by modern life.  Comics vent their frustration, and we laugh, achieving catharsis vicariously.  People like to laugh.  But a comic who stands in front of a crowd and tries to get them to laugh puts himself in a vulnerable position: if the audience doesn’t laugh, he bombs—probably the single most excruciating social experience a person can bear.  So why do so many people—the majority of them paid only token sums—put themselves through this?

I asked Mike Wood, who frequently performs stand-up, what draws him to the stage.  “The approval of an audience outweighs that vulnerability.  I joke about it, but I actually do sometimes feel like making people laugh is better than sex …. The best thing about performing as a stand-up is the rush I get out of the first big laugh I get from the crowd.”  Or, as Dr. Robert Gardner puts it, “I’ve often heard of comics when they talk about controlling the audience.  To make a group of people laugh or gasp at exactly the same time through your skills as a storyteller is very addictive.”

In other words, stand-up is not just getting up in front of people and saying funny things.  Obviously, for comics there’s something rewarding, in and of itself, in being able to manipulate a group of people, and that involves more than just reciting jokes.  As any comic will tell you, “reading” the audience, interpreting their reactions and playing to the vibe or mood of the room is just as important as having good material in the first place.  It’s a constant effort, working to get the crowd on your side, and seeing how far you can take them from their comfort zone before they turn on you.  This is one reason stand-up comedy is so much funnier live than it is on TV: the comic is tailoring his act according to the feedback you and others are giving him.

To give just one example: Stephen Wright is a comic famous for his wry, almost koan-like one-liners.  Toronto audiences are infamous for being a bit staid; they don’t dance at concerts and they don’t laugh out loud at comics.  During a performance in Toronto a few years ago, Wright at one point went off-script during a bit involving an imaginary baby.  He mimed placing the baby on the stage and then, almost as an afterthought, mimed giving it a resentful kick as he walked back to the mike.  The audience rewarded him with the biggest laugh of the night.  Wright was visibly shocked, and followed up with another joke: “Note to self: Toronto audiences like jokes about kicking a baby.”

There’s a lot lost without context, but what’s interesting is how Wright—a seasoned comic who knows how to read a room as well as anyone—was still shocked by the reaction to a joke that pushed the limits of taste.  This reaction was instantly noted and incorporated into his act.  It may even have influenced the tone of the entire rest of the show.  The art of stand-up comes not from simple recitation, but from the constant pas-de-deux the comic performs with the audience, pulling them around to his or her point of view, then pushing them to the places the comic wants the audience to go.

Is there more to it than just having people hang on your every word, and the thrill of exerting power over an audience’s attention?  What influences, for example, the kind of things a comic chooses to talk about?  In Woods’s words, “To play armchair psychiatrist for a moment, I suppose that what I’m getting out of it is approval.  I like sharing (or is it airing?) my worldview, and stand-up is a socially acceptable format for cynicism and darkness.”  In other words, in this context, he can say what he wants, no matter how misanthropic, and not only is it OK, but people actually listen.

Here’s Heather Havrilesky on Louis C.K.: “It’s clear that Louis C.K. doesn’t just want to tell jokes.  He wants to present the full force of his terrible brain, the ways that he eats himself alive day after day.  He wants to confess his most unlovable, uncomfortable, embarrassing secrets, maybe as a means of feeling less alone in the world.”

“Absolutely” stand-up is therapeutic, says Wood.  Of a painful breakup, he says, “I’m acknowledging that it was real, and painful, but by turning it all into a joke I’ve made it almost harmless.”  Can this exorcism happen without an audience?  Perhaps … some people find that confiding to a single friend is enough.  But this is a difference of quantity, not of kind: in every case, a comic’s catharsis is earned by the struggle of finding the words to express his or her darker thoughts, and to share them, to find a universality in them.  This only happens when an audience laughs—signaling that they get it, and that they understand.  It sounds like a laugh, but what they’re really saying is, “You’re not alone.”

ack in 1957, Seymour Feshbach and Robert Singer published a study designed to test the effects that expressing—or suppressing—negative emotions could have on a subject’s interpretation of the world.  It ran like this: subjects were divided into groups, who were then shown a film (a more or less neutral film about a guy doing everyday stuff), while a fear response was created by delivering electric shocks to the viewers.  Obviously, getting painful shocks intermittently will cause a person’s anxiety to elevate.  But while one group was encouraged to express their fear, a second group was told to suppress any visible reaction.  A third, unshocked group was used as a control.

After the session was over, the subjects were questioned about the personality of the man in the film.  What they found was that the subjects who were allowed to express their anxiety about the shocks during the film had neutral reactions to the man onscreen, similar to the control group—but those who were instructed to suppress their reactions described the man as far more fearful than the other groups did.

The findings essentially suggest that suppressing expression increases a person’s tendency to project, while expression mitigates this tendency.  In other words, the way we look at things—the emotions we ascribe to other people, and the hostility we perceive in the world around us—depends in part on whether we have an outlet to express our anxieties.  When we don’t, these bottled anxieties are reflected in what we observe.   The world we perceive becomes a different, less pleasant place.

It’s perhaps stretching to say that the findings of one limited study could be applied to our lives more generally, especially to the effects on emotion or personality of suppressing expression over a period of months or years.  But perhaps not.  Anyone who has ever lacked someone to listen to them for a long period of time can attest to the feelings of isolation and unhappiness that result.

This study, and the fasting study mentioned above, set out to show how our perception of the world, the way we categorize it and the way we are able to access these categories, depends on our ability to share these thoughts with others.  When denied the ability to express ourselves, we lose the ability to objectively perceive (or listen to) others.  Cut off from the ability to meet our needs, we lose the ability to recognize these needs in ourselves.

n May 20th of this year, PFC Bradley Manning, stationed with the US Army in Iraq, Emailed former computer hacker and sometime journalist Adrian Lamo, under circumstances that are still not entirely clear.  The following day, Manning and Lamo chatted over AOL.  Lamo contends that he never did open the Emails from Manning, but rather forwarded them—and the content of the AOL chats—to the NSA unopened.

On June 6th, 2010, wired.com reported that Manning had been arrested and was being detained in Iraq, based on the content of the Emails and chats.  The reason?  Manning had admitted to Lamo that he leaked classified information to Wikileaks.org, including the notorious video that eventually made its way to YouTube, of an American Apache helicopter gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq, among them Reuters reporters and Iraqi children.

We don’t need to speculate as to why Manning released the video or the other information (supposedly a series of State Department records documenting morally suspect “backdealings”) to Wikileaks—he makes it explicit in the chats, which were released by Wired, and then later, in less redacted form, by BoingBoing.net.  Assuming his own account of his motivations is to be trusted, these documents were leaked in an act of whistleblowing:

(1:10:38 PM) bradass87: its open diplomacy…world-wide anarchy in CSV format…its Climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth…its beautiful, and horrifying ….
(1:11:54 PM) bradass87: and… its important that it gets out… i feel, for some bizarre reason
(1:12:02 PM) bradass87: it might actually change something

According to Glenn Greenwald, Wired elsewhere posted the following excerpt (now evidently removed):

It was forwarded to [WikiLeaks] – and god knows what happens now – hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms – if not, than we’re doomed – as a species – i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens – the reaction to the video gave me immense hope; CNN’s iReport was overwhelmed; Twitter exploded – people who saw, knew there was something wrong . . . – i want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

This is a satisfactory explanation for why he leaked the documents.  But a bigger question remains: why did Manning out himself as the source of the leaks to Lamo—a total stranger?  Manning knew that if he was identified as the source of the leaks, he could be charged with treason and face serious jail time or worse: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much ….”  He was not unaware that being discovered as the source of the leak would have serious consequences, but he trusted his secret to a total stranger anyway.

To find the answer to that question requires a little role-playing.  Imagine that you are a gay, possibly transgendered boy of the tender age of 22, stationed away from your friends and family in a less-than-queer-friendly environment.  Imagine that you have witnessed examples of political duplicity and institutional apathy in the face of blatant corruption, and have taken it upon yourself to leak evidence of it to a third party.  Imagine that you are not socially integrated into your workplace, have no acquaintances outside the military with whom you can talk, and are harbouring an enormous secret (or two).  The chats reveal Manning’s deep emotional turmoil, and that he has to “get something off his chest.”  The following quotes are taken from Manning’s released chats with Lamo over a 90 minute period, presented here in chronological order:

  • im sorry… im just emotionally fractured
  • im a total mess
  • i think im in more potential heat than you ever were
  • i’ve totally lost my mind… i make no sense…the CPU is not made for this motherboard…
  • >sigh
  • i just wanted enough time to figure myself out… to be myself… and [not] be running around all the time, trying to meet someone else’s expectations
  • im just kind of drifting now…
  • its such an awkward place to be in, emotionally and psychologically
  • i cant believe what im confessing to you :’(
  • ive been so isolated so long… i just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life… but events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive… smart enough to know whats going on, but helpless to do anything… no-one took any notice of me
  • :’(
  • im a wreck
  • im a total fucking wreck right now

It becomes clear, reading the chat that contains these lines, that Manning, after being socially isolated during his deployment, is desperate to unburden himself to anyone who will listen with sympathy.  Lamo is a stranger, but one who has expressed sympathy for Wikileaks’s cause, and one who is openly queer.  Perhaps Manning saw a kindred spirit.  Perhaps he was reassured by Lamo’s statement that he was “genuinely curious.”  Manning is clearly distraught throughout the exchange, and looking for the solace that sharing one’s anxieties with someone else can offer.  He knowingly risked his freedom and possibly even his life just for the comfort that comes from being listened to.

ll of which brings us back to the subject of therapy.  As mentioned above, Glass compared being interviewed by a receptive journalist to therapy:

It’s hard to resist whenever someone really wants to listen to you.  That’s a very rare thing in most of our lives …. If someone really listens to me and cares about what I say for ten minutes in the course of a day—that’s a lot.  Some days that doesn’t happen at all …. That’s a force that talks to the deepest part of us.  There is something that happens during therapy when the therapy session is going well: If someone is talking to a therapist about something unresolved—something they don’t understand—and they suddenly start talking about it, it just flows out in this highly narrative, highly detailed form.

Therapy, of course, is something you pay for: you literally pay someone to listen to you.  The benefits of therapy, or even just receptive attention—the benefits described by Weaver and Glass above—are so obvious that an industry is structured around providing them.  In the television model, someone with a message pays for a listening audience to hear it—but the value of the audience is only activated by their subsequent obedient purchasing.  The television audience is useful only insofar as it’s spending.  The same can be said about any time a speaker gives orders that, when carried out by the listener, benefit her materially.  But therapy gets to our need not just for an audience, or someone to accurately do what we tell them to, but for someone to actually listen.  To be heard and considered without interruption is such a scarcity that we’re willing to pay for it.  That’s probably doing a disservice to therapists, who do much more than just listen, but I don’t think any therapist would dispute that providing a sympathetic ear is a crucial part of what they do.

In the case of Manning, he didn’t have the opportunity to see a therapist, or at least didn’t get what he needed out of it if he did.  As a result, the price he paid for someone to listen to him was not monetary but penal.  There are other examples of people who committed crimes, but were found out when the compulsion to share their secret became too great to bear: the murderers of Bobby Kent who confessed to loose-lipped friends, and the British news anchor who confessed—on air!—to the mercy-killing of a former lover (not to mention St. Augustine, who wrote a whole book of confessions) are just a few of the high-profile examples that come to mind.  Classic stories like The Scarlet Letter and The Telltale Heart play on the idea of a person compelled by conscience to speak, to their own material detriment.  Confession, as they say, is good for the soul.

The comfort of a listening therapist or other person is not, of course, limited to confession.  Says Weaver, “Talking to a listener often takes the form of catharsis, but it is also a way of maintaining contact with reality.”  Whether it’s grief, or job-related stress, or the trials of parenting, talking to someone about the problem can help contextualize things and put them in perspective.

This in itself is a kind of therapy.  Useful information is advantageous to the listener, but sometimes simply being able to express information is advantageous to the speaker.  It’s in our nature to talk about what’s on our mind, whether we expect sympathy or not.  It may be cathartic.  It can give us a frame of reference for the things we talk about.  It can produce moments of human connection.

In the end, the value of listening is just this: communication requires both speaker and listener, and communication is what makes us human—both in the anthropological sense and as individuals.  Without a listener, our efforts to communicate signify nothing, but if we carefully consider the words of others, the thoughts they express can start revolutions, or simply bridge an emotional gap.  We may go through life alone, but least of all when someone hears us.