I recently learned about the traditional Chinese symbol for listening, and it was one of those moments where I knew what I was comprehending was so significant that time slowed.
Ironically, I was listening to an audiobook that was describing this concept while folding the laundry. A seemingly mindless task, but nonetheless a multitask. The concept struck me as so profound it forced me to abandon the undergarments I was so neatly tucking away Marie Kondo style into the drawer, rewind, listen, and re-listen several times over.
Ting as a symbol is made up of five different parts that, taken together, encompass the full meaning of what it means to listen in a fully engaged way.
The top left of the symbol signifies ears, perhaps the most obvious, and what we think we are doing when listening. We audibly take in the sounds of what is being said, although I think many of us (myself included) even struggle with this part on occasion. The symbol signals to listen attentively and encourages us to put our own inner dialogue about what is being said to one side to help us listen more actively.
Yet listening is so much more than mere auditory perception as the symbology so suitably demonstrates.
The lower left quadrant of the symbol means “king,” which can be interpreted as an instruction to treat the speaker as if they were royalty. Be respectful and give them your undivided attention.
The upper right symbolizes “you” or “to be present.” In other words, a fully engaged listening process requires us as the listener to play our role in the interaction. We need to be fully attentive and present to engage the other senses into a fully activated listening experience.
Moving down the right-hand side we meet the symbol that signifies listening with the eyes. It is well known that so much of what is communicated through the course of everyday dialogue is non-verbal. Assuming the person we are conversing with is in front of us either physically or on a screen, we look at how they present themselves. We assess their body language, their posture, and the physical cues that transmit key messages about what they are trying to convey.
And perhaps saving my personal favourite for last, the bottom right is the symbol for the heart. We need to listen with our hearts in order to fully empathise with the speaker. It is this part for me that makes the experience of Ting a truly holistic one. When we bring our hearts into the listening encounter, it inspires us to engage in a way that tables our own judgements whilst seeking to understand the other.
Taken together, Ting is an embodiment of what it means to listen, to really listen by engaging our ears, eyes, and heart whilst maintaining presence and giving the listener our undivided attention.
But what does this mean in practice?
For me, it has meant cultivating a listening practice as just that—a practice. It’s not something I’ve perfected yet, but the intention is there with a clear instruction: listen with your ears, eyes, heart, maintain presence, and give your undivided attention.
It reminds me of my meditation practice; every time my mind wanders, I start afresh, nudging the attention ever-so-gently back to the breath, starting over and over and over again, each time anew (except replace breath with attention, intention even). Can I just sit and be while I absorb this information with nowhere else to be and nothing else to do? Can I really grant myself this “luxury” of only doing one thing at a time? It feels like an indulgence, revolutionary and in a culture that prioritizes “doing” even a bit…taboo?
It means dramatically reduced multitasking while listening to audiobooks and podcasts. Before, I would listen while opening mail, sorting the recycling, walking, cooking, and folding the laundry, exactly as I was doing when I first learnt about this concept. Whilst I don’t intend to give this up completely, I am being more mindful about the type of activities I multitask with. Does cooking the dinner also require me to read instructions from the recipe? If it does, I press pause, read the instructions, and then only restart once I have processed (and sometimes actioned) that information.
Deep listening requires my undivided attention, so if I’m listening, I’m listening; I’m not also reading something totally unrelated, splitting my attention whilst simultaneously failing to do either thing effectively.
It also means paying attention to the inner voice that likes to accompany every dialogue with its running commentary. It encourages me to direct my attention outward rather than inward. It reminds me of one of the core principles of coaching, which states “we show up to give attention, not get attention.”
It is, at its core, so profoundly simple in its instruction and yet I am deeply humbled as I realize just how hard it is to actually implement in reality.
And I can’t help but think how much richer all our dialogues would be if they were met with this amount of presence.
How much more would we really hear if we listened with Ting in even a fraction more of our interactions than we do currently? If we could note our inner monologue and quiet it for a mere moment in favour of really hearing the words of what is being uttered from another’s mouth? If we treated every person we conversed with as if they were a king, granting them our undivided attention regardless of their social standing or whether there is something “in it” for us? If we brought a quality of wholeness to all our interactions, how would this translate to improving our relationships with our friends and families? With our colleagues? With our communities? With the world?