To listen is to lean in softly with the willingness to be changed by what you hear.
– Mark Nepo
Perhaps most powerfully, this definition describes listening as something that requires two concrete actions, a physical posture change (external) “leaning in softly”; and a conscious loosening of the potentially tight grip one holds on ideological views (internal). Both are actions and both require work.
Interestingly we listen all the time. It is involuntary, we do not have to make ourselves listen—there aren’t flaps over our ears that we consciously have to open. Yet, Nepo is urging us towards a type of deep listening; a type of listening that requires preparation before the person we are listening to starts speaking.
Listening in this way requires attentiveness as well as preparation. It requires an understanding of yourself and the ability to hold your views such that another person’s words could remake them. It is making a conscious decision that others have something of value to contribute to your ideas.
Nepo requires a change in metaphor when one meets to talk with others. Rather than the metaphor of war, with its bunkers and defensive actions and reactions, it calls for that of a table, hosting people to share views as they pass around delicious food, in peace, and in fellowship.
As an Italian American, I am both comforted and energized by the table metaphor. It is one that deeply resonates and even though, in this pandemic moment, the literal meal table cannot always be as big as I would like, the metaphor is one that illuminates my imagination towards discourse. I can see people around the table, leaning in to better hear each other, laughing and engaging deeply and respectfully towards understanding.