Listening is a passive word. It is a verb that describes what good school children do in class; what people did in Victorian drawing rooms. It is nice, dutiful, tame.
Hearken is a more dramatic word, it hints at more a more urgent form of listening or hearing.
Hearken travelled to us via old and middle English. It is related to hark, which has a similar provenance and was, among other things, an early noun for “a hunter’s shout to hounds, as to encourage them in following the scent.”
Hearken also means to listen, but with urgency and focus. It was a word that called to people to draw around a fire that kept them warm from snow and safe from wolves and called them to listen to sagas about bloodcurdling monsters and epic tales. People hearkened to life saving advice, shouted warnings and imperative commands. This word was born of circumstances, I like to think, that demanded that you damn well listen with every fibre of your being. If you didn’t you could miss out on something vital, something that helped you sustain body or heart or soul.
Because it is a silent activity we are in the habit, nowadays, of thinking of listening as a meek and subservient thing to do. It is the speaker who is seen as being dynamic and ‘holding the floor’ – that a speaker holds a floor and speaks words that claim our attention speaks of a form of possession, even if momentary. When we talk about this we are describing someone who is momentarily holding a place of psychological ascendancy within our conversation. Is this why so many people are such poor listeners – are they desperate to claim ascendancy, impatient to be gabby, to fill the silence with something, anything?
Listening is not passive. I learnt this during a former professional incarnation when I was a dancer and actor. There is nothing passive at all about really watching or listening – really tuning in – to someone else’s flow of ideas. I understood this when I was a performer, physically active in front of crowds of people who were verbally silent but, as a result of their intense attention to me, oh so present and influential participants in the performance.
Good listeners confer power on the speaker or performer; this is not something to be claimed by the speaker but rather elicited, bargained for with quality content and respect for the listener.
Listening – momentarily suspending your disbelief and really tuning in – is an adventure. Good listening involves risk because you open yourself up to challenging ideas, surprising news, and maybe dark stories.
As a performer in the past, and as a trainer and conversation facilitator now, I am interested in those moments when people stop listening and start to hearken – to take in knowledge or ideas with a sort of hunger, or to comfort another with their human focus when that other shares their story.
When we come together – professionally or socially – and as we trade, minute by minute, our roles of speaker and listener we need to handle our communication with care; we need to allow each other the chance to hearken – to listen as an act of drawing close and warming our hands by the fire.