Knowing how to listen, knowing how to speak
This is why the gift of the other person’s presence is not enough; from there we need to proceed to speech in order to try to understand him. Only, at this stage many difficulties are awaiting us.
It is true that being able to speak to someone should make one better able to understand him. Yet what exactly do we mean by “speaking”? It is not enough to “speak” in order to engage in dialogue. There is dialogue when speech is alive and that many conditions are fulfilled: 1) the presence of two people 2) mutual understanding 3) a common ground 4) something meaningful to share. Dialogue is only a way to understand another person when it is authentic, which may be more complex than one thinks.
Talking to somebody is not just trying to make oneself understood. Dialogue can walk astray and off the path leading to an understanding of others. 1) One may slip into mere information; in this case only the person talking understands what is being said. Exchange never takes place, yet this is required for dialogue. To have a dialogue it is not enough to find a willing listener with the patience to put up with your talking, but to whom you yourself will not be listening. 2) There can also be a misunderstanding when two people don’t attribute the same meaning to the same words, so that each one of them speaks at different levels. The common ground is then missing. 3) Dialogue can degenerate into mere chatting. Chatting appears to be a dialogue, but the people talking are not present in what they say: the content of their speech is as insignificant as it is repetitive. Speech does not aim at the other person’s understanding it; it is only there to substitute for a real presence and above all to avoid silence. A dialogue is only useful to understand others if it makes possible an intimate exchange with them. 4) A dialogue can degenerate to polemics when one wants the exchange of a dialogue, while refusing to make any effort to understand the other person’s position. Each person then sticks to his position and instead of exchanging ideas one struggles to uphold this or that conviction. Polemics replaces the confrontation of points of view by the opposition of individuals. We see this when spokesmen fire off all their weaponry to criticise a viewpoint, then retreat into muteness, and pay no attention to the objection of their adversary. 5) Dialogue also self-destroys in lying. As soon as lying makes its way into the dialogue, speech loses its true purpose. There can be no comprehension without truthfulness and without a genuine intention to have a dialogue. Have can we understand one another if we are not sincere?
Supposing that these obstacles are overcome in mutual sincerity, the dialogue allows one effectively to open up to the other person and hear what the other has to say. Understanding means to grasp intentions and motives; this is best done when we listen to the other person and do not make conjectures from outside. To listen to what the other person has to say is also to help him find his way in language, to find the words in which to put what he needs to say in order to make himself understood. To understand someone is to listen to a conscious presence, to someone expressing this presence with his own words and this sharing can take place in dialogue.
Nevertheless, if intentions develop inside words, they also appear between them. If discourse is meaningful, so too is silence: the gaps between words also have their eloquence. To understand the other it is not enough understanding what he says; it is also understanding what he does not say but what his presence expresses all the same. The other person gives himself just as much in what he says as in what he doesn’t say; he is this undivided totality. In other words, understanding supposes at once what is said and what is left unsaid. Our gestures often say as much as our words. According to psychologists, only 7% of communication is through words, 38% is via the tone of the voice and 55% pertains to body language. There is often a discrepancy between conscious discourse and unconscious discourse, the one expressed in a face, an attitude, and then the internal consistency of communication is broken. For instance someone’s speech may be artificially playful, yet his body expresses embarrassment at first, then self-defence, then lying and concealing of inadmissible truths.
To understand others one must also therefore have the capacity to allow him to be himself, without judging him, and listen to what he says in his presence. And this is difficult because we are just as unable to give time and attention to other people as we are unable to listen to them. To understand another we must be totally available to him here and now. We must neither condemn him nor identify him to ourselves. Understanding is not judging, yet it is so easy to form prejudices about other people, much easier than trying to understand!
One often hears that dialogue enable people to understand one another. It is of course desirable to praise dialogue, especially in a world of incomprehension, such as our own, yet this also means that it has to be genuinely there, otherwise the apology of dialogue is no more than empty words. What is at stake is to know how to listen, and this comes before knowing how to talk. The art of speaking supposes a respect of others’ expectations, the art of finding where they stand in order to give them whatever answer can be given and share whatever can be shared. It is an art founded above all on the art of listening. Yet, listening to others reveals differences that are do not always make it easy sharing in dialogue. One must of course drop conventional etiquettes; behind the etiquettes there is each human being’s unique personality, which defeats all comparison. The prerequisite of all authentic understanding is therefore to throw away the image one has of the other person. A dialogue is -beyond conventional discourse and empty speech – to partake in somebody’s intimacy, an intimacy which is neither our own, nor anonymous.
We all too often forget that any human relation is nourishment both for heart and mind. We constantly need to learn from others and this is why we must keep an openness allowing for surprises.
Intuitive understanding makes us partake in the other as by successive waves. As we know another person better, little by little we get closer to an original intimacy, which nevertheless also remains a mystery ever renewed. Understanding others is not a matter of reasoning and conjecturing. What I imagine the other to be is not how he is, only an image of him. If we relate to others via images this both corrupts this relation and prevents direct understanding. Even more so, the knowledge founded on objectivity is more inadequate still to do justice to the knowledge of others.