Deep Listening at the Recurse Center

Glen Chiacchieri / October 2017 (Reading time: about 12 minutes)

In November 2016 I did a short residency at the Recurse Center, a wonderful learning environment for computer programmers in New York City based on the idea of unschooling. Applicants that are accepted attend the program for free for 6- or 12-week batches. There are no teachers and there is no curriculum — it's just a community of learners trying to self-organize to become better programmers, whatever that means to them.

Recursers, as people attending the program are called, are a fairly diverse group. Some are just beginning to program and trying to get their first job making software while others have been programming for decades. Recursers also come from fairly diverse social groups — many ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and neurological dispositions are represented there, mostly due to the staff's commitment to equality in the application process. That said, most Recursers are socioeconomically secure enough to be able to support themselves for 6 to 12 weeks while they attend the Recurse Center. This surely limits the types of people that can attend the program, though the center offers diversity grants. Older programmers also seem to be underrepresented in the group.

No matter the person, everyone at the Recurse Center is trying to make a significant change in their lives. This change is important enough for them to leave their friends and families for a few months and come to New York City to attend a programming retreat — the majority of Recursers seem to be coming from across the US and a significant number are international. I find this amazing — Recursers as a group clearly think their personal growth is very important.

I came to the Recurse Center because I was interested in learning environments — ways of fostering human growth has been my obsession for the past 5 years. I wanted to get an up-close view of how the center worked and also understand the individual life journeys of people attending the program. As someone who has been undergoing a positive transformative change in my career (from interface design research to therapy), my heart goes out to anyone trying to bring change in their lives.

During my residency, I was expected to give a talk and maybe a workshop, but otherwise my time could be spent as I saw fit. Following intuition, I chose to spend my time talking individually with Recursers about anything they wanted, big or small. In addition to introducing myself in-person, I would leave messages in the group chat every day (one of the most common ways of communicating at the Recurse Center) that looked something like this:

Sample chat message. Hey y'all, I'm still available to talk about anything you want today! It can be related to my talk and things I'm working on, or it can be totally unrelated and about where you're at in your life and personal things, or what projects you want to work on and why you want to work on them, or whatever you'd like to talk about!

In the 8 days I was there, I had about 35 conversations. Each conversation was usually about an hour, which meant that on average I spent about 5 hours per day in conversations. Subjectively, I felt like I was busy almost the entire time I was there and had very little free time.

These conversations were amazing. The subject matter ranged from discussing bugs in programs decoding JPEG image files to emotionally-charged discussions of Jewish generational trauma evoked by Donald Trump becoming president. People revealed many parts of their lives that aren't usually shown to new acquaintances, and I felt deeply honored to receive these gifts. A sense of calm wonder, sensitivity, and gratitude pervaded all these conversations for me, and many people seemed to be touched also, a few to the point of tears.

Furthermore, the conversations seemed genuinely useful. I think probably any conversation where people can truly open up about themselves on a deep level is inherently useful, but the more analytical part of me wonders concretely how these conversations fold into people's lives. I think ultimately I'll never know since consciousness is so complicated, but in my observations, many people felt a sense of relief after talking with me. They seemed calmer and often much clearer about what it is they should do next. They also often had words to conceptualize what was going on in their lives.

Because I believe empirical observations matter, both in validating the work we do and in communicating well, here's what one person said after our conversation: "Wow, thank you so much. It's like I wanted to give up when I'm near the finish line. Thank you." They were smiling a lot (which they had not done much of until that point) and seemed much more relaxed. They kept saying thank you. And the analogy about the finish life they mentioned was something they created during our conversation. This analogy is a type of conceptualization or story-making that gives people understanding and power over what is happening in their lives. If this person is at the end of a race, then it might become easier for them to continue knowing they're near the end — they may be more resilient. The sense of relief I sensed in them may have been related to establishing that story.

Deep Listening

In all of these conversations, I wasn't just having a typical conversation — I was practicing a skill that I call deep listening. Deep listening is a type of non-judgemental listening that goes beyond ordinary listening. Normally, we think we're paying full attention to someone, but if we closely examine what's going on in our experience when we're in a conversation, we find that our attention wanders, often at random — from thoughts to what we're going to say to feelings we're having and so on.

Deep listening, in contrast, involves listening to someone with the fullness of your attention, the same kind of attention one gets in a deep flow state. It involves calmly monitoring your own field of awareness and bringing your attention back to what the person is saying if it wanders too much. If emotions, judgements, or impulses to speak flare up, they're noticed immediately and let go. In this way, it creates a sense of safety for the conversational partner, that they could say anything and the other person would not have an adverse reaction. It also involves a genuine interest in what the other person is communicating, not just with their words but their facial expressions, body movements, word choice, tone of voice, reactions to prompts, conversational themes, etc. I don't think it would be too much to say that this interest, when fully cultivated, is indistinguishable from a sense of love and compassion for the other person.

Deep listening isn't just about listening, either, though that's the core of the skill. One aspect of deep listening that seems to be useful is in reflecting back insights to the person you're in conversation with. This seems to help the person relate more clearly to their present internal reality — what's actually happening for them right this second. I believe that over time people start to absorb this skill and begin listening to their own thoughts, emotions, impulses, and bodies in a deeper way, and this mindfulness will help them make better decisions about their lives.

Crucially, deep listening does not involve much advice-giving. In my experience, most unasked-for advice comes out of a place of ego (wanting to feel smart) or ignorance (not truly understanding where a person is coming from), and as such has limited utility. Deep listening involves staying with someone in potentially vulnerable places and not trying to impose much of yourself in their process.

On a shallow level, just having someone repeat something back to you in their own words can feel really good — it's a sign someone is really getting what you're saying. On a deeper level, a person listening with their full attention can also start sensing what's truly important for their conversational partner. I like to joke that many people will come to you asking for help with a bug in their JavaScript program but it soon becomes clear that the real problem is they don't know what they're doing with their lives.

To expand on this, Recursers have what is often an unconscious stack of meaning making. A very simplified, made-up example of a stack might look like this:

"Today, I'm fixing a bug in the bittorrent client I'm making.
    I'm fixing this bug because I want to make a functional bittorrent client.
        I'm making a functional bittorrent client because I think it will help me improve my programming skills.
            I want to improve my programming skills because I think it will help me get a good job in software.
                I want to get a good software job because I need money to buy food and I think it will make me happy.
                    I think a good job will make me happy since I felt dissatisfied with my other jobs and it seemed to make me unhappy.
                        I want to be happy because I want to live the most comfortable life I can."

All people have something like this stack in their heads, but it's often not articulated, and definitely not so clear and linear as in the example above. However, in this vastly simplified model there is a clear hierarchy from values at the bottom ("I want to be happy") to actions at the top ("I'll fix this bug"), and these can both modified when we have new experiences. New actions gives us experiences that change our values, and new values change what we do.

Part of my job as a deep listener is to sense where a person wants to engage on this stack, and where would be most useful for them to engage. In the example above, if a person seemed willing and it felt relevant, I might suggest exploring the assumption that a software job would make them happy. For some people, questioning that assumption would either be too scary or not a useful thing to think about at this point in their lives.

In my experience, doing self-directed work like Recursers are doing can set off a chain of doubt that ripples through this meaning-making hierarchy and can allow us to start questioning what is truly meaningful to us. This process, when fully engaged, can be incredibly daunting and painful, bringing up some of our deep psychological and emotional patterns (such as imposter syndrome) as well as causing some of the most previously important things in our lives to crumble into meaninglessness. It can also lead us to the most meaningful things in our lives, things that give a sense of soulful purpose every single moment.

From my particular mix of technical skills, experience in self-directed projects, and emotional attunement, I felt comfortable engaging knowledgeably on all these levels. There were some conversations where we talked mostly about technical things, and others where we addressed things that were not inherently related to their time at the Recurse Center at all. It felt useful to have personally-grounded context — I've been doing self-directed programming projects for years so I can relate to their experience directly. But I also worked with people on a deeper level, from bits and bytes to spirit journeys.

At the Recurse Center, I suspect that since almost everyone there is in the midst of a large life change, very few Recursers can be fully present in supporting each other. Not that one needs to be fully present to offer support, but I think there are qualitatively different outcomes when practicing deep listening. Things that people gloss over in normal conversation get acknowledged and explored — instead of shying away from hard emotional truths about themselves, people feel like they can safely explore whatever material comes up. And this material often seem to be the most important and meaningful things for people to work on.

I believe practicing deep listening consistently is probably impossible without a meditation practice or else a fairly unusual personal sensitivity — it just seems to take a lot of self-knowledge and raw focus. Additionally, it seems like the more secure one feels in their life, the better one can listen to someone else, probably because the troubles of life aren't unconsciously eroding one's attention. When I'm listening well, I feel a meditative calmness that seems to reach down into my nervous system.

In our culture, it's extremely rare to talk to someone who is fully present, non-judgemental, and deeply interested in what we're communicating. Most people at the Recurse Center seemed to find it fairly easy to open to me when I was practicing this skill. A few remarked that they felt a little vulnerable when I was fully paying attention to them, but that didn't stop them from talking with me. That said, it also takes a tremendous amount of energy. After a full week of deep listening, I felt frayed and my concentration lapsed, but I was very happy doing it.

Ultimately, I practiced deep listening as a gift. I gave the fullness of my attention to help people understand and make change in their lives. In return, I was privileged with incredible conversations that made my heart soar. I fully plan to continue offering this gift to Recursers in the future. heart emoji

For those interested in learning more, this technique was surely influenced by my study of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Rosen method bodywork, and the Hakomi Method of mindfulness-based somatic psychotherapy.