Thoughts while reading Susan Notess’s ‘Listening and Normative Entanglement: A Pragmatic Foundation for Conversational Ethics’

I’ll begin this post with some quotes taken quite haphazardly from the dissertation so that you can hear the points in Susan Notess’s own words (& hopefully tickle your fancy so that you read the rest of it yourself!), and brief thoughts triggered by them, and then I’ll expand with broader reflections on the dissertation’s argument… Find the dissertation here.

‘The complaint about not being listened to seems to pick out a much broader worry about being responded to and cared for in a right way that need not necessarily always boil down to an epistemic worry about being believed. Instead, the concept of “listening to someone” has more to do with paying attention, taking them seriously, and responding appropriately.’ – Simone Weil’s theorizing on attention could be useful to bring in here.

‘Whether due to systemic and structural injustice or a problem at the interpersonal level, a listener who resists or is not attuned to a speaker gets in the way of that speaker’s capacity to be heard and taken seriously.’ Countertransference responses are one possible reason for ‘resistance’ on the listener’s part. Another might be time/energy constraints. Another might be contradictory messages in the speech itself, preventing easy up-take. How to overcome these?

‘Whether a patient feels listened to by a doctor as much less to do with the precise mental contents believed by the doctor in the presumed privacy of his mind; rather, a patient feels listened to because of how the doctor responds to her.’ I think that it’s not an either/or here, the ‘mental contents’ in the doctor’s mind probably still matter to the patient even if the action-response from the doctor is more important. The speaker probably wants to hear that their ‘message’ had made some form of an impact in the ‘precise mental contents’ of the doctor, whether or not that impact was ‘belief’ or another form of buy-in.

‘To say that a person is not listening justly is to say that something has gone wrong in their handling of the interlocutor’s voice and claims.’

Listening is a ‘fundamental mode of human relating’ – our relationships with people (to a large extent) condition the way we listen to them. We are likely to treat their voice and claims as important – we are likely to care about their voice and claims, if we are in a strong, respectful and affectionate relationship with them. But, interestingly, we might sometimes fail to listen to even those people we are most close to, precisely when our relationship with them overtakes (in importance) themselves as the human being with whom we are in a relationship. E.g. I might value a romantic relationship so strongly, that when the other tells me that it is not working for them anymore, I choose not to ‘listen’ to their claim. But at some level here, have I listened to them all-too-well, certainly well-enough to register that their claim is a threat to my wellbeing, which then causes me to have to actively block-out this listening only after the fact? Can we listen on one level but not another?

‘Listening stands as something closer to, and yet more ontogenetically specific than, a form of care or a beholdenness to second-personal address. [Then quotes Kukla & Lance:] “Whatever else speech does… it does it by seeking to forge such a relationship of mutual recognition between speaker and target audience through vocative call”.’ Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin’s Recognition Theory would also be interesting to bring in here. In general, I am surprised that Notess doesn’t bring in any psychoanalytic theory, given that psychoanalysis might be considered the – or at least an – ‘art of listening’.

‘The theory of listening given here, therefore, should not be about believing or trusting people, but rather about the morality of listening to people qua people, particularly when those people are vulnerable, are non-experts, or are not in a position to rely on being trusted for securing appropriate recognition from the listener.’

In the research I have done on patients’ experiences of attending A&E departments after self-harming, I consistently find the complaint that they did not feel listened to, and this frequently comes with comments that their ‘humanness’ was ignored. Listening to someone means treating them as an autonomous human agent, and sadly this appears to be often neglected in crisis services for those presenting with suicidal intent or self-harm… Why? Why might it be particularly difficult to listen to patients presenting with self-harm in Emergency Departments? What are the resistances going on here (other than the obvious constraints on time and resources)? No doubt there are countertransference responses that are getting in the way, but also – perhaps in psychiatric settings it is particularly difficult to ‘listen to people qua people’ because of the form their communication takes…? On some level it is paradoxical? Contradictory? (Not only ‘unbelievable’ or ‘ill-informed’). Is there a Catch-22 situation going on here, sometimes?

Notess describes a fictional scenario of Jimmy Green (part of an oppressor social group) learning to be a better listener to Gina Blue (a member of an oppressed social group). Notess introduces the scenario by explaining why Jimmy has decided to be a better listener to Gina: ‘Lately, however, as Jimmy seeks to grow personally and to improve his standing in the community to support his future hopes, he has come to realise that if he wants to stand a chance at getting votes from the families in his area, he will need to have a substantiated reputation as “someone who listens” to the blues.’ She then goes on to describe in fascinating detail all the steps Jimmy must take in order to become the better listener that he set out to be. But, I would have loved it if Notess spent more time explaining just how such a shift in motivation (to be a better listener, when he wasn’t motivated to be so before) came about! I’m inclined to believe taht this is the fundamental hurdle to overcome, and in this dissertation it’s underexplored why Jimmy would one day wake up wanting to be a better listener… The point about him wanting to win votes hints that on some level, it might have to be selfish concerns motivating such a change – he wants to better his own situation, and it happens to be convenient that this ends up being beneficial to all parties involved (Gina & the other oppressed Blues) – but I would love to understand how that internal shift in motivation happened in the first place. I find the account of that shift similarly lacking in Iris Murdoch’s famous scenario of the mother-in-law who lovingly revises her conception of her daughter-in-law in an effort to see her more justly.

To move on – I completely agree with Notess that it is urgent that we address the difficulties inherent in listening to vulnerable or non-expert speakers because moral damage is likely to occur if this happens regularly and systematically. Moral damage is ‘constitutive’ when it alters the ‘constitution of the moral agent in respect to her agency and autonomy’. If moral damage occurs when people are regularly not listened to, then ‘moral healing’ might occur when someone is regularly listened to. Is listening a prime mechanism of therapeutic progress (as distinct from empathy, unconditional positive regard… etc.)?

Related to my concerns, Notess ends the dissertation by hypothesizing why the listening of the Samaritans volunteer might be therapeutically healing for a caller in suicidal distress:

‘Because the volunteer’s moves are minimal, mostly back channel responses to underscore their continuing enchronic support, this serves to provide  chain of meaningful connections between the various thoughts and feelings of the distressed caller. The volunteer accepts each of these into the Common Ground without challenge, giving recognition to the caller, and a sense of coherence with the rest of human experience. Enchronic Minimalism offers the caller an experience of social connection, in which all epistemic, affective, and inferential commitments are stripped out of the Common Ground. No matter how sad or scary of shocking their thoughts are, the listening volunteer affirms that they can still find and experience connection and coherence with other people – that they can still be held by the special glue of co-relevance, that thing which provides the ground and grain for human interaction, and affirms their place in our wider discursive ecology.’

I love this description of how listening can be healing, particularly for someone who has likely experienced poor listening repeatedly throughout their lives. Where I would like to extend this research is in exploring how the listener overcomes their own internal hurdles to becoming such an ideal asymmetrical listener (as I mentioned in my point above). The Samaritan volunteer described here sounds like a saint, rather than a normal human being. I myself am a volunteer at an organisation offering listening support to those experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, and understand that even with the best will in the world (which isn’t always present even in those who volunteer in a helping capacity), it’s hard to listen to people in distress. I would love to know what we can do as researchers, volunteers, mental health professionals, human beings, can do to improve our ability to listen to those who need it most.

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