The Listening Laboratory

Welcome to the Listening Lab. Hey what has happened to listening? Has listening become a lost art? Do you think that the digital era of endless texting, multitasking, and other forms of divided attention may have made paying attention to a single source of information rarer and more difficult for people than ever before? Everyone seems to be able to get themselves entertained through their device, but when it comes to simply paying attention to others and listening we seem to be incapacitated. We don’t have time. We are on the move. We have to go! Well, here at the Listening Lab, we are staying still to investigate listening by turning the microscope on ourselves, one by one.

Indeed, being a good listener has its advantages. Good listeners are more likely to have better relationships, learn more, solve problems better than poor listeners, have more information at their disposal, deal with conflict better, and have more self confidence. The Listening Lab is designed to get you to report on your listening experiences, while you become a better listener by engaging in a combination of listening activities and self-reflection. The Listening Lab is not going to tell you how to be a better listener, but instead it will guide you to a mode of self-examination, self-critique, and self-discovery. The Listening Lab is not a classroom; it’s all about researching your self!

The Listening Lab is the home of an ongoing praxis in which personal research into the phenomena of listening informs and develops us as individual listeners, and can even change the way we interact with others. Built from a set of ideas, exercises, activities, and workshops the Listening Lab is a multifaceted long-term project, which aims at discovering more about the activity of listening. If you like you too can be part of the work of the Listening Lab to become a more informed and skilful listener in a variety of different ways. You can do your own personal research with guidance from a series of exercises. Rather than learn from the expert on how to be a better listener the Listening Lab encourages you to discover what kind of listener you already are through self-reflection on the observations you make, think about, and report on. Read on if you want to know more about the Listening Lab.

What is listening?

Listening is a faculty we rely on to do all kinds of things. We use it to orient ourselves to the external world, to notice what is going on around us, whether we are in a built up environment or out in nature. We get pleasure from listening to sounds, voices, music, and so on. We use it to follow instructions, to communicate, and find out about our world. Indeed in a world where communication is more and more crucial to our survival, listening plays an important and yet often overlooked part.

In a basic sense listening is the action of paying attention to sound. The sounds we hear originate in the pressure of air on our eardrums from sound vibrations we call noise. Noise is the raw material of listening. Noise comes in sound-waves. Listening, being the act of paying attention, requires more of us than simply hearing the sound-waves which have moved our eardrums. Listening is a cognitive process, a combination of hearing and thinking whilst paying attention to sound. When it comes to spoken language, because of learning we are able to recognise words and therefore, in a literal sense, we can read the acoustic images (spoken words or sound images). From those acoustic images we construct complex pictures of what we imagine the sound images are meant to represent. In the same way we learnt to speak, we also learnt to listen. If we hear a “woof” we can read that sound image to imagine a dog. So listening is a subtle and complex cognitive process that requires the effort of actively paying attention and thinking or processing the sound images. Being able to reading signs, whether they are words or gestures or sound images is the basis of understanding. Like with reading, our faculty for listening is complex and selective and built within it there’s a capacity for tuning out. This ability to tune out or selectively focus our attention means we can be hearing and yet not actually listening! This feature of being able to tune out from actively listening, while in the presence of sound, is something the Listening Lab is focussed on.

Communication can go wrong!

For most of us communication depends on speaking and listening. The speaker organises thoughts and ideas into words and expresses them so that the listener can understand. The listener hears and processes the words to construct a coherent meaning in order to understand what the speaker means. Communication works quite well on most occasions, despite this transmission of meaning being at best a hit-and-miss process, with every listener limited by what they imagine the speaker intended for them to understand. But for communication to work effectively both the speaker and listener need to be paying close attention to each other and seeking clarification as they proceed because the words, even when carefully strung together to make sentences, are often ambiguous and open to interpretation. Sentences become ambiguous. We all know words fail! In a famous example of words failing the command, “bring up reinforcements we are going to advance” can be heard, and yet misunderstood, as “bring up four and six pence we are going to a dance”. Oh dear, catastrophic misunderstanding is possible!

Mood and context also play a role in influencing how a listener interprets what is heard. Hunger, fatigue, pain, boredom, and the circumstances in which the communication is happening can all contribute to misunderstanding and, alas, even to communication breakdown. For example it is common when a listener is in shock or is hoping for a particular outcome they may not be able to think clearly and consequently misinterpret what is being communicated. This regularly happens in hospitals when bad unwanted news is delivered. Anxiety, depression and fear can hamper listening as those states function as distractions. When a listener has other immediate interests, is thinking about other things, cares more about other matters, is distracted, disagrees, has prejudged the intentions of the speaker, or would rather be elsewhere, what is heard is easily poorly interpreted or misunderstood.

The problem of the ego

The Listening Lab is designed to bring all these and many more of the difficulties we face as listeners to the fore to get insight into what it is in us, in particular, that is interfering with being better at listening. One of the key features of the Listening Lab research is the problem of our ego. The ego is, to a great extent a system of defenses, which are organised to protect us from psychic and physical harm. Generally we don’t think much about what our ego is, and when we do we prefer to think of the ego as who we are or as our identity. As it turns out the ego gets in the way of crystal clear listening. Our ego seems to muddy the waters, so that an intended act of clear listening becomes an act of muddy listening, or in some cases not listening at all. We might be making every effort to pay attention and yet fail to pay attention to the speaker, while we are distracted with our ego’s interest in other things. For example, sometimes we say to someone whom we have had enough of, “Right that’s it, I don’t care, I am not listening to you anymore!”, or when we are disinterested we may simply drift off elsewhere and effectively stop paying attention to the speaker. What we are discovering at the Listening Lab is our ego has a mind of its own! We might want to listen but in spite of our self our ego makes it damn difficult!

We may define clear listening as listening, which is least affected by our personal biases, preferences, and prejudgments, in contrast with muddy listening, which is listening with a predetermined personal agenda, or riddled with various distractions. When you’re confronted, by a person with whom you are speaking, with the exclamation, “You’re not listening to me, are you?”, it has become clear to them that they have not been understood and their intention has been somehow missed, overlooked, or dismissed. When we fail to pay attention to the speaker, for whatever reason, we muddy what is heard.

How to do the research

If you want to get on with participating in the Listening Lab you can do your own research, self-reflection, and report to the Listening Lab (here “Report Centre”, coming soon). We strongly suggest that for best results you do at least three listening episodes (hint: you can do as many as you like) with different speakers, in different contexts. There are two modes for doing your own research: Collaborative Mode and Stealth Mode.

Collaborative Mode

In Collaborative Mode you will need to recruit a collaborator (hint: any talkative friend will do) to talk with you for about 15 minutes. In this mode you can instruct the speaker to speak for about 15 minutes while you listen (hint: first find a quiet comfortable place to sit undisturbed and take a timer and take a notepad and pen). The speaker can speak about anything they like, anything at all. If the speaker has any difficulty knowing what to speak about, you can guide the speaker by suggesting they select from one of the following prompts.

  • Talk about your self by answering the question, “what do you know about yourself?”
  • Tell the listener in detail how you got here today, starting from when you got out of bed, and then describing what happened next, and so on and so on.
  • Explain to the listener how everyone in your family is related including your generation, the previous two generations, and the following generations, including cousins, uncles, aunties, nephews, nieces, etcetera, and who you like and who you don’t and the reasons why.
  • Talk about what’s troubling you at the moment. Go into every aspect of it.
  • Tell the listener what your ideal holiday would be, where you would go, who you would go with, and what you would do.
  • Tell the listener about the state of the world. Get political!
  • Tell the listener about your relationship to God, or the metaphysical!
The listener’s two tasks

Now that you have your designated speaker and they have decided what they’ll talk to you about for 15 minutes you are set to begin the research. The important part is what you have to try to do as a listener. Remember this is part practice, part theory, part research. The aim of the first task is not to speak at all for 15 minutes! Just listen. Remember listening is paying attention. Remember listening is also thinking. And don’t forget the second task: remember to do your research! You might think listening is easy, but for many of us it is not at all easy. Just listening isn’t just listening! Let’s break it down.

Listening is paying attention

Quite simply listening well is paying attention well. Sit comfortably, breathe to relax, and focus on your speaker’s words and the images that their words conjure up for you in your mind’s eye, in your conscious imagination. Try to knit the pictures together to make a collage of what you think the speaker intends. Try not to think about anything else!

Listening is thinking

The trick here is to think only about what your speaker is saying, but not to think too much about what your speaker is saying! How much thinking is enough? Well we don’t know the answer to that question. That’s for you to research and report on (here “Report Centre” coming soon). Basically you need to think enough to piece together what your speaker is saying to make a story of it; the story you think they are trying to tell you.

Researching your self

The introspective research is where all the really important Listening Lab action happens. Here’s where you get to look within and examine yourself, and see if you can detect and catch out your misbehaving ego! The research into your listening experience is going to help you get to know yourself better and hopefully make you a better listener. And your report (here “Report Centre” coming soon) will contribute to the ongoing understanding of listening for the benefit of all. It is your task as researcher to listen and, importantly, also to notice what your particular resistance to listening is. For example, you might notice that the speaker is so boring you can’t pay attention very well, or that they are enjoying speaking so much you aren’t having a good time listening, or that you just want to speak so much yourself, to tell your story, that you can’t pay attention or think about their words very easily, or you might notice that you aren’t really believing your speaker and that is what’s interfering with simply listening, or you might notice that you don’t really care about what they are saying or complaining about, and so you don’t care to listen to attentively, or your might not feel emotionally connected, or you might feel too emotionally connected, and so on. Remember the Listening Lab is also interested in the things that you notice which help you listen; not only what is making listening difficult for you. Whatever you notice you might like to write down as you go, and if you don’t make notes then you’ll need to remember so that you can fill in your report card at the Report Centre (here “Report Centre” coming soon). To help guide your thinking on what to observe in yourself while listening go to the Report Centre (here “Report Centre” coming soon) now to see what questions you will be asked about your listening experience. So just to be clear as a listener you have two tasks. First to simply listen as clearly as you can. And second, to pay attention and note down your own personal observations of your resistance to listening.

Stealth mode

If you want to operate undercover you could choose Stealth Mode. In Stealth Mode you will need to be prepared to do your self-observation work while simply listening to someone talk, without them knowing you are also focusing on your listening faculty. In Stealth Mode it is going to be difficult to simply listen for 15 minutes, because you might be required to speak, so that you won’t appear weird! Each mode has its pros and cons. Collaborative Mode is a bit like formal inside-the-laboratory research, while Stealth Mode is more like research set in the field. The downside of Stealth Mode is that you may not be able to test to see if you are even capable of listening for 15 minutes, which is one of the great challenges of the Collaborative Mode. Don’t worry, that’s okay, as you will still be able to do the necessary self-observations to see what your particular resistances to listening are, what muddies the water! The upside of Stealth Mode is it’s the real deal. It is actually a real field test of listening! But of course you will still need to take notes of what your resistances are, what mischief your ego gets up to, and also what appears to support, aid, assist, promote, or liberate you to listen more attentively, more clearly. Remember if you really want to operate undercover of Stealth Mode you may get caught out if you are seen to be taking notes while someone is speaking. To help disguise your work why not try Stealth Mode when you are in a meeting or lecture or presentation so no-one notices that you are actually at work in the Listening Lab!


The next phase of your Listening Lab research is reporting. The reporting can be done privately or anonymously online at the Listening Lab Report Centre (coming soon). If you want to do your work privately you can download and print out the reporting questionnaire: LISTENER REPORT CARD (CLICK HERE), SPEAKER REPORT CARD (CLICK HERE). If you want to contribute to the collective research of the Listening Lab you can do so online (not yet here, coming soon).

Thank you for participating in the Listening Lab. We hoped you enjoyed the experience!