But what’s so fascinating — and you and I talked about this the other night — is that I am usually not in the room. In fact, I’m often halfway across the world from the people I’m in conversation with. And the technology of radio, of podcast – I mean, these are not physical experiences.
But my conversations, because of the topic, and then because the medium allows for this, are very, very intimate. And they’re intimate between me and the person I’m speaking with. And then it’s an intimate experience — the magic of radio — and of course, that’s just the old-fashioned word for podcasting — is that it is profoundly individual and also absolutely communal at the same time.
And there’s also kind of a time shift that goes on. It defies time because, in the moment that you listen, you’re in that room when it happened. And I think of a conversation — what I hope for every conversation I have is that it is an adventure and that something will happen that will surprise both of us and, as a listener, you also are there for that moment of surprise.
So I was thinking a lot about that, actually, as I was thinking about being here. Because we’re talking about human presence. And there is this miracle that it’s absolutely possible with and through and in technology. And I think that what you’re about is figuring out how to amplify that and to explore all the possibilities in that.
So I think of listening as a basic social art. I think of social art and virtues as spiritual technologies. And that is to say, just a tool for the art and craft of living, and for a deepened, more generative — which is a nuanced unproductive, although it can be productive — but a more deepened, generative, higher-quality, human experience.
And the interesting thing — so it is a basic social art. I think it’s something we know how to do or we’ve known how to do, but we’ve actually unlearned. I think that, growing up in this culture, we learn that listening is — or the experience we have, which we internalize to be about what listening is about — is to be quiet while the other person says what they have to say until it’s time for me to say what I have to say.
But actually, listening is not about being quiet. The being quiet is a side-effect. Listening is about being present. And as I just said, interestingly, you can be present online as well.
And so because we’ve unlearned this thing, I think it’s interesting to think about, what are its really basic component parts? For me, listening brings a quality, musters a quality, of generosity. And a spiritual technology is always working in two directions. It’s inner work as much as it’s outer work.
So especially in this world we inhabit now, and with so many things we’re fighting about and so many things we’re fearful about, this is not as easy as it sounds, right? In fact, it’s not very instinctive. To me, a generous listener, a definition of that would be wanting to understand the humanity behind the words of the other — so it’s not just about the words that are going to pass between us — and wanting to bring your own best words and your best ideas into the conversation.
You have to muster also, in yourself, a real curiosity to bring that kind of generosity to bear. And again, this is really a withered muscle.
The thing about curiosity is you can’t actually fake it. And again, whether we’re online or offline, we, at an animal level, when we encounter another human being, absolutely know whether they’re really curious or whether they’re just asking us a question. We know that in our bodies.
So really, even just this basic component of the art of living, of being curious, becomes a spiritual discipline. Or if you don’t like that language, it becomes a muscle that we need to flex and flex so that it again starts to feel like instinct, starts to feel natural.
Listening involves vulnerability. One litmus test about whether you have actually gotten yourself to a curious place that you can ask — whether you go into a room, whether that’s a virtual room or a physical room — is are you willing to be surprised?
And again, we walk into all of our spaces these days so guarded, so clear about what we have to say, what we have to present, what we have to protect, and also so clear about what we think those other people stand for. So to be willing to be surprised is an unnatural move right now.
And then the final piece of this that I want to add is that, actually, in many of the spaces we are currently working with and living in and meeting each other in, it wouldn’t actually be reasonable to ask other people to surprise themselves or surprise us.
So there’s a piece of this — I think that the social art of listening is intimately connected with the virtue of hospitality, another spiritual technology.
One thing I love about hospitality — it’s a gateway to all the other great virtues — compassion or love. It’s much easier. It’s an easier entry point. You don’t actually have to love someone to be hospitable towards them. You don’t have to agree with them to be hospitable towards them. You don’t even have to like them to be hospitable towards them.
But we know, in our analog lives — and I think, maybe, we’re learning in our online lives — that the space you create absolutely limits or expands what is possible that will happen there. There is a difference between creating a space with a welcome and an ethos or just opening the door so that anything can happen.