Maria Popova on “Telling is Listening”, part of Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of nonfiction writings published at “The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination”
“Every act of communication is an act of tremendous courage in which we give ourselves over to two parallel possibilities: the possibility of planting into another mind a seed sprouted in ours and watching it blossom into a breathtaking flower of mutual understanding; and the possibility of being wholly misunderstood, reduced to a withering weed. Candor and clarity go a long way in fertilizing the soil, but in the end there is always a degree of unpredictability in the climate of communication — even the warmest intention can be met with frost. Yet something impels us to hold these possibilities in both hands and go on surrendering to the beauty and terror of conversation, that ancient and abiding human gift. And the most magical thing, the most sacred thing, is that whichever the outcome, we end up having transformed one another in this vulnerable-making process of speaking and listening.
Why and how we do that is what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) explores in a magnificent piece titled “Telling Is Listening”found in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us her spectacular meditations on on being a man and what beauty really means.
(…) But the magic of human communication, Le Guin observes, is that something other than mere information is being transmitted — something more intangible yet more real:
In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.
Paralleling Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Le Guin points out that all speech invariably presupposes a listener:
In human conversation, in live, actual communication between or among human beings, everything “transmitted” — everything said — is shaped as it is spoken by actual or anticipated response.
Live, face-to-face human communication is intersubjective. Intersubjectivity involves a great deal more than the machine-mediated type of stimulus-response currently called “interactive.” It is not stimulus-response at all, not a mechanical alternation of precoded sending and receiving. Intersubjectivity is mutual. It is a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses. Instead of an alternation of roles between box A and box B, between active subject and passive object, it is acontinuous intersubjectivity that goes both ways all the time.
(…) This entrainment, Le Guin argues, occurs organically and constantly, often below our conscious awareness and beyond willful intention:
Consider deliberately sychronised actions like singing, chanting, rowing, marching, dancing, playing music; consider sexual rhythms (courtship and foreplay are devices for getting into sync). Consider how the infant and the mother are linked: the milk comes before the baby cries. Consider the fact that women who live together tend to get onto the same menstrual cycle. We entrain one another all the time.
Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.
When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.
The Wave in the Mind, which borrows its title from Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on writing and consciousness, is one of the most intelligent, insightful, and profoundly pleasurable books you can ever hope to read — the kind guaranteed to far surpass any expectations seeded in this very sentence.”