The inner voice doesn’t so much conjure up the consolation of inner riches as it does a chattering internal radio. But our inner voice is at least faithful to us—it is reassuringly or irritatingly there on tap. It offers us the unfailing if ambiguous company of a guest who does not plan to leave. It can be companionable or frightening, may range from fascinated eavesdropping of oneself to a brooding censor within—an internal dialogue that occupies both sides. There is a voice— questioned as to its origin, we have no doubt that it’s ours, but its habitual presence resembles a rapid low-grade commentary without authorship, rather in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s assessment: “whose voice, no one’s.”1
We are essentially in conversations with ourselves most all the time— conversations about what’s going well and what’s not, what others think, what we think, how we feel, the invariable what ifs, how abouts, are you kiddings?, etc. That voiceover, that running stream of thinking and history and rumination, is not necessarily bad—it’s just, we never really get to hear another or they us. We pretty much listen only through the filter of what’s in our heads. What we’re saying to others, or they to us, might seep in from time to time, but it isn’t in what we or they are saying—it’s what we’re saying plus what they are saying about what we’re saying, which isn’t what we’re saying, etc., and vice versa.
That inner voice is a subtle and pervasive presence, and unfortunately has us miss out on the full possibility of communication and the infinite worlds it makes available. The business of living—our work, our mores, our relationships with friends, associates, and loved ones—is accomplished through speaking and listening. It is through language, through those acts of speaking and listening, that life really happens—in the side rooms, the hallways, the relaxed spaces of being human. Communication is how lives are started, money made, wars begun and ended, freedom realized.
So, back to the “listening” part. Bottom line, how we listen is essentially determined by our concerns—being successful, being liked, wanting to know what’s in it for us, how things will turn out. We can’t really listen to another when we’re preoccupied with our concerns. Listening without those predispositions, preoccupations, and filters has enormous power. Listening doesn’t receive speaking, it isn’t a receptacle for speaking—it gives speaking. It’s the clearing in which speaking can occur. Listening is the possibility for understanding, for meaning, for being known and loved—it’s the backbone of international relationships, of businesses, of family members and friends. It’s long been a staple of corporate success—in the new media, listening is probably the most important factor in the toolbox. Listening is what allows others to be—it’s where both the speaker and what is spoken come alive, exist, and flourish.
Tina Fey, comedian, author, captures the creative power of listening from an improvisation perspective: The first rule of improvisation, she says, is “agree—agree with whatever your partner has created. So if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You jerk!’ then we have started a scene. Obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the idea is to ‘respect and listen to what the other person has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a ‘yes’ and see where that takes you. As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ What kind of way is that to live? The second rule of improvisation is not only to say ‘yes,’ but ‘yes, and’—agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you just say, ‘Yeah…’ we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘Yes, it can’t be good for the wax figures,’ now we’re getting somewhere.”2
Now to the “speaking” part. Speaking is more than just talking, more than the exchange of symbols or information, more than persuasion or saying what we really think, more than just a vehicle for describing or representing reality. Speaking is that which allows for “who” and “how” we “are” in the world. It’s what allows for the futures we create, where we evoke experience in others, where our ideas become clear and possible, where we share ourselves, and where others are expanded by our participation with them. When we come together to talk, to act in common and listen to what is said, we can create something new between us. Major advances happen as a result of speaking—democracy, relativity, human rights are just a few. People see a possibility, and in the act of speaking can reshape the course of events.
Speaking and listening are not just something we do in response to a world that exists outside of us—they’re what brings that very world into being. Language is an ontological phenomenon, a being phenomenon, not an auditory one. It’s the bridge between the uncreated and created worlds—it’s both the ultimate reality and the instrument through which reality is brought forth. When we see language this way—as that which gives rise to the world and that which gives access to what is in that world—it alters the very nature of what’s possible. Our conversations constitute who we are, and when we know that, it shifts our relationship to the world, the way we define ourselves—not merely in the way we think about ourselves, but in the actual experience of who we are. Language is inseparable from who we are, and what gives us access to the full panoply of being human—of creativity, of love, of resolution, of achievement, of contribution. It’s the home, the only home, of possibility.
1Adapted from “The Inner Voice,” by Denise Riley, Harper’s Magazine, June 2005.
2 Adapted from Tina Fey, Bossypants.