Listening For Versus Collecting Data
Researchers talk about collecting data from subjects. The words alone insinuate a power differential. When we ‘collect’ something, we take it, gather it, or accumulate it, usually without permission (think seashells on the beach or tomatoes from the garden). And when we talk about ‘subjects,’ the term implies people that are “in a position that places [them] under the power or authority of another” (Free Online Dictionary).
Better than collecting data is listening for data. When we listen in a research mode we listen with permission for what will be given to us by the interviewee rather than what we intend to take. This type of listening goes beyond the listening required of our everyday interactions with others. It is the purview of philosophers, psychologists, communicators, and spiritual teachers.
In his seminal work I and Thou, philosopher and theologian Martin Buber describes how a meeting between two individuals can be a reflection of the human meeting with God. From a secular or research perspective, his postulate can be interpreted as a reflection of one human being meeting the essence of another.
Buber distinguished between the ‘I-Thou’ and the ‘I-It’ relationship that can occur between two individuals as follows:
When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It . . . The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.
Extrapolating from Buber, genuine listening occurs only in the I-Thou state. Extrapolating further, the ideal listening relationship between the researcher and the interviewee happens in an I-Thou relationship. When we look upon the other person as a “thou” (a unique, sentient human being) rather than an “it” (a data repository), we approach the research with a humanistic perspective, one that is likely to net us rich and meaningful data.
It’s easy to fall into an I-It relationship, withdrawing behind a role or set of research techniques instead of being present with another human being. The researcher wants something—new data, confirmatory data, a novel theory, supporting quotes, evaluation findings—from the interviewee. The association is functional and transactional rather than relational.
On the other hand, during I-Thou interviews, researchers are open to hearing what they cannot imagine knowing or may not want to know. Their priority is honoring the individual for what they have to say (whatever that is), and in the way they wish to say it.
We can all learn I-Thou listening. It comes from first understanding our own listening processes and practicing active listening.
Dr. Richard Halley (Listening: Models and Procedures, 2008) tells us that our cognitive listening processes start with making the information we collect available to our conscious awareness. From there we engage in a sorting process that helps us decide what particular input to focus on and listen to. This subconscious process is controlled by our value systems, our wants, our desires, our biases and the current task at hand. From there, we organize the selected stimuli into recognizable patterns that allow us to assign meaning to them.
If we can gain some understanding about how we listen and process the information we take in, we can then learn to avoid some of the listening errors that interfere with accurately hearing what the speaker intended to say.
Understanding our listening style can also get us closer to high fidelity listening. High fidelity listening means there is a high level of congruence between what the interviewer thinks they heard and what the interviewee actually said. It is the anticipated outcome of I-Thou listening.
In their recent book Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competencies, Debra Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser tell us: “The level at which we shift away from our interests and turn to the needs and interests of the other party is truly listening.” They describe the practice of active listening as follows:
We truly listen with an open mind that isn’t hindered by our expectations and agenda. Active listeners provide feedback to the other person to help verify what the other person is saying and encourage them to continue.
Active listening is called “active” because there is a lot going on during the process. Besides trying to grasp what we hear, we need to help the speaker help us understand them. Michael Purdy, in Listening in Everyday Life: A Personal and Professional Approach, likens this process to a jazz musician’s spontaneity:
We must be constantly alert and open to improvisations as the elements of the listening situation change. Like a jazz musician’s spontaneous and unrehearsed play, we must adapt to the communication of the other members of our social group, always conscious and alert for changing meanings in the situation.
Active listening trumps ‘collecting data’ for producing meaningful information. It involves clarifying the interviewee’s responses, paraphrasing the essence of the interviewee’s message to provide them a mirror to further examine the message, paying attention to body language and feelings, and openly listening to what the other is saying. This type of questioning and listening create opportunities for lengthy responses that provide a useful springboard to further questioning and exploration.
Active listening is I-Thou listening
As qualitative researchers, it means we include the speaker (interviewee), their needs, and their interests in our process of inquiry. We listen with an open mind, even if it means we must change our thinking, change our questions, or admit we are wrong.
By using I-Thou listening, we leave behind the idea that we are collecting data from subjects. Instead, we submerge our own egos and immerse ourselves in the message our interviewees want to convey. For we as researchers share at least half of the responsibility for helping respondents clarify what they are trying to explain.