When You Hear Your Partner, Are You Listening?
"Limbic Resonance" and the Art of Listening
by David McCann, Ph.D. & Janis McCann, Ph.D.
We want to discuss the art of listening, which we believe is at the heart of communication, and is also what makes up a civilized culture. We believe that if we do not come together and listen to one another, we cannot have a healthy culture. But if we do sit down and listen to one another, we can remake the world—one relationship at a time.
How do we understand the difference between listening and hearing? We know that listening is a simple and profound capacity to not only hear the words, but to put our arms around the words, to accept them, and to set aside the chatter in our own heads. Listening means that we are conscious not only of what the other is saying, but also of what we are saying, how we are acting and reacting ourselves.
In a recent workshop for couples a man struggling with this principle in the dialogue, suddenly came to this awareness: “You know, up until now I have always been ready to speak to my wife, but I’m not ready to listen.” In our experience, with our own relationship and with hundreds of couples, this readiness to speak, but not to listen, is endemic to our personal relationships and pervades our culture. The explanation for this tendency seems to be that we human beings project our own opinions, thoughts, prejudices, desires and needs upon our partners, always colored by our own experiences. And when we do that, in no way can we actually hear what is being said to us, not to speak of learning something new from our partners.
So, how do we make the distinction between our auditory capacity to hear and the act of listening? Sounds, noises, tones, voices, in brief, our sensory perception by way of our ears, is going on all of the time, whether we are paying attention or not. As you read these words on the page, pay attention to the sounds and noises around you as you read. Until the moment that your attention was drawn to the sounds in and outside the room in which you are sitting, you were not particularly cognizant of those sounds, although most likely your ears were hearing them. Any definitions we pursue of the words “hearing” and “listening” always come to the distinction that when we listen, our ears are paying attention.
In our own practice of this discipline of paying attention, in our own relationship and in our coaching and counseling of other couples, we often come up against this conundrum: How could something so simple--paying attention while hearing our beloved partner speaking--be so extraordinarily difficult for us? All of the great spiritual traditions and the teachers of meditation—if we understand meditation in the Buddhist Tibetan tradition of “cultivating attention”—instruct us to pay attention, to be present in the moment, so we can cultivate the inner silence for true listening. Like flossing every day, some kind of spiritual practice in paying attention every day, we know, is “good for us.” Yet, how many of us make it a daily habit? And how many of us have given serious thought to what we do in our own heads and minds, and how this may be affecting the way we are hearing what’s going on in the heads and minds of our partners?
Does that mean that we should run to an Ashram or trek off to the Himalayas for instruction in meditation? Of course not. What we are saying is that if we want to have great communication in our relationships, we must go against the grain of a culture that bombards us with a multitude of visual impressions all day long, allowing us no space and time to develop the inner silence necessary for genuine listening; and we must do some conscious and deliberate work to cultivate the spaces inside ourselves, and our loved ones, where it is possible to listen.
"Limbic Resonance" and the Art of Listening
The best work of the “interpersonal neurobiologists” is demonstrating scientifically what our profession until now could only intuit and know impressionistically from ancient cultures and religions—that “mindful awareness,” living in the here-and-now, being fully present in the moment, not only enhances our physical, mental, and social well-being by focusing our attention and attuning to the present, but also is indispensable for healing our fractured social, personal, and spiritual relationships. These neuro-scientists argue that love resides not in our hearts, but in our brains; that we are exquisitely wired to experience love and attachment; that “limbic resonance” in the sub-cortical areas of our brain is as necessary as food and oxygen for its healthy development; and that our psychological “bias” of 150 years—we learn who we are in relationships through attachment to other beings like ourselves, and if we are loved for who we are, we learn how to love and be loved in relationships of authentic reciprocity—is now grounded in the hard science of sub-cortical and “limbic resonance” in our brains.*
So, those of us who are choosing to be part of the New Wave of conscious and intentional couples, are gifted at the beginning of the 21st century with the possibility of integrating the findings from cutting-edge neurological research with the wisdom of mindfulness practice. And we have the opportunity to demonstrate to our selves and our partners that real change comes about, not through intellectualization and insight –which, incidentally, dominated so much of 20th-century psychological science--but through the practice of empathic and validating listening that resonates from the sub-cortical, intuitive, and limbic regions of the brain up to the neo-cortical regions, and back down again. We can become fully conscious that both we and those whom we choose to communicate with, are habituated to a fast-paced and impatient culture dominated by sight, and that perhaps herein lies one of the difficulties we all have in practicing the art of listening.
Research on the differences between the eye and the ear suggests that just in understanding that our eye operates at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), while our ear operates at the speed of sound (1,100 feet per second), we gain a deeper understanding that if we are to help our partners face their despair over failed communication, we must slow down and listen—that means we must stop trying to communicate with others at the speed of light, which is what our electronic era inundates us with--visual impressions at the speed of light--and communicate at the speed of sound.
The research also teaches us that while the eye appears to operate at a more superficial level, that is, of reflected light, the ear penetrates beneath the surface. Optical illusions seem to be an integral part of the human condition; acoustical illusions, by contrast, are rare. “The ears do not lie. The sense of hearing gives us a remarkable connection with the invisible, underlying order of things. Through our ears we gain access to vibration, which underlies everything around us,” writes one observer.** Consider how we can “read” so much information from the tone and music in other persons’ voices, how they feel toward us, and what their intentions are.
In sum, to get to that limbic resonance that not only keeps us alive but allows us to thrive and become everything we are meant to be, we need to cultivate the art of listening--listening with deep understanding, listening in that way that can take us imaginatively into the world of the other person where we can discover what it feels like to be in his or her world of feelings and thoughts. It is our experience that when one partner truly listens to the experience and point of view of the other partner, such a shift, from the habitual hearing of chatter in one’s own mind to, empathic and compassionate listening, can have a truly transformational effect on both the speaker and the receiver, for the healer and the healing.
* Like the three psychiatrists from UCSF Medical School in their pathfinding book of 2001 (A General Theory of Love, by T. Lewis, R. Lannon, and F. Amini),
** William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York,1999).
About the Authors
David R. McCann and Janis E.McCann are both licensed psychodynamic psychotherapists and personal and relationship coaches. They coach highly motivated and successful individuals, and couples seeking conscious relationships. They are also depth psychologists exploring archetypal and universal themes in the lives of individuals and couples, challenging clients to find their dreams in the imaginal realm, to develop their imaginal abilities, so that they not only dare to dream their dreams, but to give birth to those dreams and realize them in the world. As the Co-founders of The Canyon Psychotherapy and Counseling Group, Janis and David have over fifty years of experience between them, as educators, therapists, and coaches. Having attended one of Harville Hendrix's Getting the Love You Want couples workshops some years ago, they were so excited at the prospects of healing their own relationship, that they resolved to help themselves, and then to help others with what they are now calling the creative potential of relationship or the 3 Cs--contact, communication, and communion. They have become Certified Imago Relationship Therapists, and Certified Imago Couples' Workshop Presenters for the couple’s weekend workshop. Both McCanns are members of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Association for Imago Relationship Therapy. You can find them at www.relationship-coaches.com